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Waiting For a Ride

The Red Line Gathers Steam

Christopher Myers
A map of one proposed red line route, from the recent AA/DEIS study. Download a larger, pdf version

By Michael Byrne | Posted 11/5/2008

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Let's say just a few weeks ago the University of Maryland offered you a research fellowship at its new BioPark facility in West Baltimore, right by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. You accepted, gladly, and moved into an apartment outside the Beltway--say, in Ellicott City. You drive all the way into the center of town your first few days of work to get acclimated before figuring out your transit options. And you are, for sure, going to look at those options, because gas is on its way back up--three bucks a gallon isn't far off, and who knows where it could go from there.

Every morning, swooping down the last grade of the 2,153-mile continent-spanning I-70, you drive by a green highway sign before exiting at Cooks Lane. The sign advertises a "park and ride" lot, and you feel a little silly not using it. And, as you trace the circuitous back route through West Baltimore in your car--down Cooks Lane, Edmondson Avenue, the "Highway to Nowhere," and, eventually, MLK and the BioPark--you feel even sillier, because everyone else moving inward from the western fringes of the city is trying to cram through those mostly residential streets, too.

So, you call the Maryland Transit Administration, asking which bus stops out at the lot. A representative answers with a jocular, "There's no park-and-ride lot out there, sir. Maybe 15, 20 years ago. . . ." A scan of Google Maps shows that the nearest busline, the Quickbus 40, stops about a half-mile away down a dangerous route along a curving exit ramp. One morning, you follow the interstate to where it awkwardly, abruptly ends. Or, rather, to where it sharply curves back on itself, like the eye end of a giant concrete needle with narrow, residential Cooks Lane lying across its neck. In the middle of that loop is a small parking lot, announced from all traffic directions by signs emblazoned with bus and car icons. And where I-70 would logically continue, a grassy, cleared rectangle of open space extends, like an overrun buffer of a jet airstrip.

It's a funny way to learn that you have no options for commuting other than the old, on-its-last-treads beater in which you just moved across the country, no matter how high gas climbs or how many tens of miles of everyday halting, congested urban driving your car has left on it. And if you don't feel like taking the Beltway into the city center via either a circuitous northern (I-83) or southern approach (I-395), you not only face something of a problem, you are part of the problem. According to the city's projections in the Red Line transit study, traffic along the corridor that bisects Baltimore from east to west is expected to increase at least 15 percent by 2030, making an already unsustainable traffic situation worse.

An actual park-and-ride lot may be returning to that terminal stretch of I-70 in the next five years or so, a future part of what might eventually become a much-needed transportation artery pumping through Baltimore. The Red Line is a proposed high-capacity mass-transit line stretching through some of Baltimore's most dense, transit-dependent, and job-rich areas, from the Social Security Administration offices near Woodlawn in the west to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to the east.

The project was proposed initially as the first step of 2002's Baltimore Region Rail System Plan, an ambitious mass-transit system proposal that includes six high-capacity lines lying over Baltimore like a colorful jumble of overlapping twigs. The 2002 plan as a whole envisions a fertile, vibrant Baltimore of the future, a city perpetually growing and generating jobs. The Red Line, however, is maintenance, catching up, a step toward bumping the quality of life for the city a little closer to that of its peers.

Baltimore's transit network doesn't need a signifier like the defunct park-and-ride lot to illustrate how lacking it is. Compare Baltimore's public transportation to Portland, Ore.'s, quickly expanding, massively popular MAX Light Rail or Denver's explosion of rail-transit projects, or, well, travel 40 miles to the south and find one of the best subway networks in the country, Washington, D.C.'s Metro. The latter network of five lines and more than 100 miles of rail leaves Baltimore's single-line, 15.5-mile Metro Subway--sometimes dismissed as the "train to nowhere"--looking like a joke.

Ditto for Baltimore's Central Light Rail line, which takes the cheapskate option and utilizes existing rail lines to travel south to north through the city, quite literally via the scenic route up the Jones Falls Expressway, skipping growth and population centers on the other side of the Jones Falls valley such as Charles Village, Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Campus, Roland Park, and Towson. (The 2002 Baltimore Region Rail System Plan calls for a new Light Rail line routed up Charles Street through those areas, but, again, said plan offers almost every mass-transit dream short of a ladder to the moon.)

As such, most of Baltimore's internal transportation is accomplished by bus or car. In 2004, the city released the Texas Transportation Institute's analysis of Baltimore's congestion woes. In 2002, traffic delays cost travelers 59.7 million hours in gridlock and 101 million gallons of gasoline burned unnecessarily. The study put the cost of this at $1 billion, or $395 per Baltimore-area resident per year. Consider today's swollen oil costs and that figure would likely double.

"The [Red Line] project is much needed for Baltimore's transit system," Kelly Clifton, a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, confirms in a telephone interview. "It comes perhaps too late. It would have been nice to see something more put in in the '70s and '80s, comparable to what Philly has. The Red Line element is the critical link to building that [sort of comprehensive] transit system."

As of this week, the Red Line project is, remarkably, on-schedule. In fact, while nearly every other transportation project in the state was hit in September 2008 with funding cuts--save for the Maryland Transit Administration's hybrid bus conversions, necessary bridge repairs, and a high-capacity transit line known as the Purple Line connecting Bethesda and New Carrollton in the D.C. suburbs--the Red Line was spared. In September, the MTA released a preliminary study, the Alternatives Analysis/Draft Environmental Impact Statement (AA/DEIS) of the Red Line proposal that details the specific options for the project and how much each might cost, the first significant step toward applying for the necessary federal funding for the Red Line. And this week begins a series of four public hearings on plans outlined in the AA/DEIS. It would appear that MTA means business in delivering an effective east-west transit line through Baltimore, but there are blanks to be filled in, arguments to be made, and, hopefully sooner than later, common ground to be found.

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