Friday, February 4, 2011

Pondering the red line

I can barely believe it myself, since I am a huge transit nut and have been pushing for the red line for the last few years, but some people over at the Baltimore/Washington, DC forum at SkyScraper City have actually challenged my opinion on the red line and whether it is the best transit system that the city could build -- and I am starting to wonder if the red line is what's best for Baltimore.

That's not to say that I am no longer in favor of the red line -- I definitely am. But I am beginning to side with some of the people who have been criticizing the red line and thinking about some of the alternatives.

The red line, as it is currently planned will be a 14-mile light rail line running west from Woodlawn/Social Security to Canton and out to Dundalk. It will go underground downtown, avoiding the sluggish street-level path that the current light rail makes through the downtown area. But aside from that improvement over the current light rail, the red line is primed to make many of the same mistakes.

For one, the red line is planned to run at street level down Edmonson Avenue on the west side of the city, where there are many traffic lights, as well as Boston Street in Canton. This will make for a slow ride through the area, putting it on the same level with the #40 QuickBus, which takes a similar route down Edmonson Avenue and route 40 on its way downtown.

Once it gets downtown, the red line will not use any of the current tunnel systems already in place, opting for an entirely new tunnel instead, meaning that it will not directly connect with any of the existing transit lines (metro subway or light rail) despite Charles Center having the capability to handle a second line. Instead, the red line will be connected to Charles Center via an underground walkway. Sure, it's better than the current transfer point between the subway and light rail, which exists at street level without much signage, but it still doesn't take advantage of what is already in place.

Once the red line arrives in Canton, it will go back to street level and proceed down Boston Street, much to the chagrin of Cantonites who want the red line put underground. And as it continues east toward Dundalk, the red line will pass by abandoned factories or areas not primed for Transit Oriented Development (TOD). And when the red line terminates in Dundalk, it still doesn't give the east side of town a good transit line downtown like the subway does for Owings Mills on the west side.

So basically, despite its positives, which there are many, the red line is a brand-new transit line being built by an administration with a track record of mistakes, and will not be fully integrated with what already exists. It's a lot like someone building an addition onto their home when the rest of their home is in dire need of repair.

So what is being suggested in place of the red line?

The one thing I can definitely agree with is that the current subway line should be expanded east past Johns Hopkins hospital to Morgan State University and out toward the White Marsh area, like the metro does on the west side for Owings Mills. The east side of town and county needs a line downtown to alleviate the heavily driven portion of I-95. And White Marsh, a booming retail and residential center, can dispel the notion that the subway was to blame for killing Owings Mills mall.

Some other suggestions are to use the tunnels that already exist in the downtown area to build segments of heavy rail systems that will connect to current ones. They won't allow for park and ride systems like the current red line is planning at the end of route 70 in Woodlawn, but they will get people to crucial MARC train stations and increase the circulation of people in the downtown area, something that the current system severely lacks -- something that the red line will not improve upon either.

And finally, there are people who are just in favor of building the red line entirely with heavy rail, since it is the fastest method of transit available, but the most expensive. However, to offset the heavy price tag, people point to the $2 billion dollar price tag of the red line and say "if you're going to be spending that much money, spend a little more and do it the right way." And that is where I probably fall. I like the idea of the red line and the extra line of transit it gives the city, but realize the flaws that it creates. A heavy rail line would erase many of those flaws.

So while I am still very much in favor of the red line getting built, even in its current inception, I do realize that it is not a perfect system and it will not fix the many transit problems the city of Baltimore currently suffers from. But I do believe that it can be a good starting point to build an east-west system in Baltimore, even though that is not what the city should set out to do. They should build something, from the beginning, that is going to work from the beginning, instead of piecing it together as they go, like they did with the subway and light rail.

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