Charles Street trolley supporters hire community organizer

Friends of the Trolley Inc., a group that supports a streetcar line along Charles Street between the Inner Harbor and north Baltimore, has hired a community organizer to promote the plan.

The new full-time position is designed to take previously volunteer efforts to the next level, said Mark Counselman, of Oakenshawe, who helped found Friends of the Trolley in 2005.

The organizer is Robin Budish, of Roland Park, former executive director of the group Fells Point Main Street and former executive director of the Historic Charles Street Association, Counselman said. He would not say what Budish's salary would be.

Budish, who was slated to start Monday, Nov. 1, will work for Friends of the Trolley, not for the Charles Street Development Corp., a longtime proponent of a trolley line, or its offshoot, the Charles Street Trolley Corp., Counselman said. Those two groups have ties to Baltimore City government, and Friends of the Trolley wants to maintain its independence, even though all three groups have the same goal, he said.

"We just thought this would be a cleaner way to do it," he said, referring to his group hiring Budish. "This has always been a community-based plan."

He described Friends of the Trolley as a "grass-roots" group, and said its board has spent the past six years researching the proposed fixed-rail streetcar line, including how it would be built and funded.

David Funk, chairman of the Charles Street Trolley Corp., said the organization is not against the hiring of Budish.

"As a corporate entity, our goal is to persuade the mayor through our analysis of the project that it's a good project for Baltimore," Funk said.

But he added, "We don't feel comfortable leading an effort of a grassroots organization. That's not part of our mission."

Supporters believe the streetcar would provide a transportation alternative for neighborhoods along the Charles Street corridor from downtown to University Parkway and would draw tourists from downtown to other parts of the city, including landmarks like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University in north Baltimore.

The 7.5-mile trolley line, estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million, would mainly run along Charles and St. Paul streets, between the Convention Center and West University Parkway. Supporters hope to use a hybrid technology that could make it the first fixed-rail trolley system in the nation to run without using overhead wires.

"We've been working on this for a while, and the vision has come entirely from the community. My focus has been on the community side of things," Counselman said. "The institutions up and down the corridor are enthusiastic about this project, as are the people. People get it, and I think it's time to move forward."

But he said it is important to have the backing and approval of City Hall, so that the project can advance and the approval processes can begin.

That could be problematic.

"As of right now, we don't see any viable funding for this project," said Ian Brennan, press secretary to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "If a viable source can be developed, we can move forward with talks of implementation. The way the city is moving now, we can't build something and hope for funding. We need to have the money and then we can do it."

Counselman admits that both upfront capital costs and annual operating expenses need to be worked out, and that a proposal several years back to fund the project with a property tax on residents and businesses within one mile of the line proved to be "a non-starter" with the public.

And he conceded, "Any project of any magnitude requires backing from (levels) of government, and it takes years to put together."

But he said the streetcar line is inexpensive when compared to other major transportation projects completed in Baltimore.

The Red Line of the Baltimore Light Rail is a $1.8 billion project in capital costs, for example.

By comparison, "We're talking about a relatively small upfront cost" for the streetcar line, Counselman said, who estimated the trolley would run $150 million to $200 million in capital costs.

He also said that "waiting for city hall to come join the 21st century" isn't an option, and that "a broader vision" for mass transit is needed.

With the hiring of Budish, the group is hoping to convince the public of the trolley's worthiness and for the city to get on board sooner rather than later.

"Baltimore City has been in financial crisis for decades," he said. "The streetcar is an investment in the future."

Whether or not the city actively backs the project, "we would need somebody on the street, spreading the word" about the importance of a streetcar line, Counselman said. He said Budish's job is to talk to community groups, merchants and residents, not to be a lobbyist.

Bolton Hill resident Jimmy Rouse, a trolley line supporter and longtime advocate for the hiring of a community organizer, said the time has come for the group to be more public in its approach into implementing the project.

Rouse, the son of the late Columbia developer Jim Rouse, confirmed that the mayor's current view on the project did influence the creation of the position.

"Although I think Stephanie Rawlings-Blake understands and likes the idea, it's not her No. 1 priority at this time," Rouse said. "We need to make it clear why it should be at the top of her list."

Building streetcars serving cities and downtown areas is a growing trend nationwide. The District of Columbia Department of Transportation plans to begin opening 37 miles of streetcar tracks next fall, and the Obama administration has been awarding millions of dollars through its Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, including $63 million for Tucson, Ariz., and $23 million for Dallas, Texas, to build streetcars in their cities.

Counselman said questions have been raised as to why the city doesn't expand the routes of the Charm City Circulator instead of building a new transportation system. He said it's a matter of foot traffic and potential redevelopment along the Charles Street corridor.

"I love the circulator, but we need restaurants, houses need fixing up, we need to fix up vacant lots. And the streetcar is a foundation for reinvestment because it's a permanent system," he said. "I see the circulator as a precursor to a more permanent streetcar."

The streetcar line is designed by Kittleson & Associates, based on a similar trolley in Portland, Ore., that Kittleson also designed.

Counselman thinks an innovative streetcar line could put Baltimore on the proverbial map as a model for urban transportation.

"Light rail is very much the last generation of technology compared to what we're looking at now," he said. "Streetcars are much smaller than the light rail and ride right in the traffic lanes."

He said the Baltimore light rail is the last rail built in the U.S., and perhaps the world, that doesn't have low-floor technology, the four steps that riders have to climb to go from the station to the vehicle. That design resulted in the installation of a handicap ramp at every Light Rail stop. Newer light rails, such as the Red Line, and the designs for the Charles Street Trolley, would allow passengers to walk or roll right into the vehicle, making them a better fit in an urban environment, he said.

Editor Larry Perl contributed to this story.

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