Donald Fry: Better rail connectivity could drive residential rebound in Baltimore City

By Donald C. Fry

Baltimore City’s precipitous-but-slowing population decline over the past 50 years is not a new problem. But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in her December 6 inauguration speech, made it a keynote challenge by setting a goal of attracting 10,000 families into the city during the next 10 years.

Though there are not yet any official plans for how to lure new residents to Baltimore City, one core strategy well worth considering should be to improve rail connectivity, especially between the city and the Washington D.C. area.

In an age where high-speed rail technology exists to enable travel times as short as 18 minutes to the D.C. region, with an overall population of nearly 5.6 million, the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., we must seriously consider pursuing it.

Many businesses already consider the D.C.-Baltimore corridor to be one market, and their CEOs frequently express frustration over the challenge of easily getting from one city to the other. Improving rail connectivity would more readily open up Baltimore to a vast region of people, many of whom are looking for lower housing costs and would welcome quicker commutes to work in D.C.

Baltimore could also greatly benefit from better rail connections to northeast Maryland in order to better serve commuters in the increasingly busy BRAC corridor between D.C., Baltimore and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

For example, limited MARC rail commuter service between Aberdeen and Baltimore dampened what could have been a larger influx of BRAC-related residents to the city, where only 2.5 percent of out-of-state workers whose jobs relocated to APG decided to live.

“We could have put a lot more people into Canton if we had more trains to Aberdeen,” says Jim Richardson, Harford County’s executive director of economic development.

Currently, rail commuters to APG from the city have only two MARC options – trains that arrive at APG at 6:06 a.m. and 7:42 a.m. and leave at 5:19 p.m. and 6:33 p.m.

A better-functioning, faster and more efficient rail commuter system would encourage more D.C. and APG workers to move to Baltimore City. Even for northern Virginians who chose not to relocate for BRAC jobs in central Maryland, better rail connectivity would at the very least improve their quality of life.

High-speed rail is the means to achieve such connectivity. Maryland has had a program to develop maglev – now a federally-recognized part of high-speed rail technology – in place for more than 20 years. During that time, advocates in Baltimore have been the driving force behind the effort to make Baltimore-Washington the first site in the U.S. to take advantage of maglev technology.

The project currently has a federally-approved draft environmental impact statement, and is pursuing final environmental impact approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

In Congress, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, has singled out the Boston-to-Washington corridor as the most practical location for a high-speed rail system, contrasting the Obama administration’s nationwide approach.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Transportation is working on ways to shorten or eliminate a Baltimore layover for MARC rail commuters from Aberdeen to the District, which could shave at least an hour off workers’ travel times to destinations south of Baltimore.

Baltimore can only benefit from finding ways to make rail commutes in Central Maryland more palatable and even, dare we think it, convenient.

Mobility is a core pillar of a city or region’s business environment and quality of life. Significantly strengthening rail connectivity to and from Baltimore would make the city exponentially more attractive as a place to live.

It would help jumpstart the residential rebound the city is seeking.

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