Red Line: an upgrade to light rail as we know it

By Donald C. Fry

As Maryland Transit Administration officials work on developing specific plans for construction of Baltimore’s Red Line, details are emerging that underscore two important issues – the value of the Red Line and its compelling upgrade to light rail transit as we have known it in this region.

The planned 14.1-mile light rail line from Woodlawn to Bayview is the fundamental connecting element of a regional rail system plan that was adopted by the state in 2002. It’s the critical east-west line that will transform the region’s disconnected, north-south rail transit into an integrated system and give residents and commuters efficient options for getting around the region without getting behind the wheel of a car.

More to the point, it’s the only element of the region’s rail transit plan that is poised to become reality anytime soon, noted the MTA’s transit development director Henry Kay in a presentation last week to Greater Baltimore Committee board members.

Because of the cost of building other proposed transit lines in the plan – which include expansion of the heavy-rail metro beyond Johns Hopkins northeast to White Marsh and another north-south light rail line connecting Towson to Columbia – the region will have to wait many more decades until the city, state and federal government are “better equipped” to make those investments, Kay said.

The Red Line, however, is poised to be built. Approximately $1.2 billion in state funding is budgeted and $900 million in federal funding is preliminarily designated, awaiting detailed state plans for the project. The MTA estimates it can develop another $550 million in funding through public-private partnerships, and from cash and in-kind sources within the region, according to Kay.

The project has moved from “literally a line on the map to something quite real,” said Kay. This has happened, he says, thanks to Baltimore City and the state, which have been “consistently strong” partners in supporting this project, and to the Obama administration, which has designated the Red Line as a “national high-priority infrastructure project.”

So what kind of light rail project will the Red Line be?

First, it will be the farthest thing from a hastily-planned project. The Red Line has actually been part of Baltimore’s regional rail vision since the 1960s. Its route was included in the proposed Baltimore regional rail rapid transit system that was published in the GBC’s 1968 annual report. Now, 45 years later, MTA planners are working on the project’s engineering and operational details that will trigger the federal funding award, which is estimated to occur in late 2015.

This particular transit line will be the product of more than a decade of study, during which the MTA examined “every idea that we could possibly think of” and gained community input on every issue, from what route it should take to where stations should be located and what they should look like, to how its light rail vehicles should be designed, said Kay.

The Red Line light rail will not resemble Baltimore’s current light rail. For one thing, the Red Line will not plod through the center of downtown Baltimore on the surface. It will glide through a three-mile tunnel underneath the city’s central business district unencumbered by traffic, discharging and picking up passengers at five underground stations.

It is the existence of the tunnel that will put 12 stations, from the west Baltimore MARC station to the Bayview campus station, within 15 minutes of the Inner Harbor.

Kay also cited other significant upgrades from existing light rail including:

  • A much more advanced vehicle design. The vehicles will have the streamlined look of modern light rail and enhancements such as “low floor boarding” without steps, just like the subway.
  • Better station design. All stations will be brightly lit and feature a new generation of civic architecture, digital train-schedule updates and commissioned artwork. Stations will be much more accessible in terms of community locations and to walk-up and “bike-up” passengers. Four new park and ride lots will be built as well.
  • Service capacity. The 54,000 riders per day projected by 2030 for the Red Line is a larger ridership than either Baltimore’s subway or existing light rail today. Daily boarding estimates include 12,900 at the Inner Harbor station, 7,400 at Howard Street/University Center and more than 4,000 each at the West Baltimore MARC station and Brewers Hill/Canton Crossing. Other daily boarding estimates range from 2,700 at Highlandtown/Greektown to 1,200 at Fells Point.

A legitimate concern expressed by businesses and residents along the Red Line’s route has been the potential disruptive economic impact its construction will have.

Some levels of disruption and inconvenience are unavoidable along the Red Line route, as with any large infrastructure project. But no “extraordinary or unusual” construction disruption is expected beyond that which has occurred in other U.S. cities that have built similar light rail lines, said Kay.

For example, Seattle reported no major “jeopardizing of value” to the economy by construction. Nothing in the light rail industry experience elsewhere documents that the economic impact of construction is a fundamental problem, he said.

On the other end of construction, there is a major economic upside for Baltimore. Our region is poised to join peer regions such as Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Portland and San Diego in bringing modern light rail mobility to its citizens and workforce. Right here, right now is Baltimore’s opportunity to make this significant transit upgrade and embrace the transformational benefit to our region’s economy and quality of life that the Red Line will foster.

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