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The Metro Option?

Why a Subway Extension Didn't Make The Red Line Cut

By Michael Byrne | Posted 11/5/2008

If you go the web site of the Transit Riders Action Council (TRAC), you will find an online petition "for heavy rail (Metro Subway) and an alternative alignment temporarily routing the red line along the Yellow Line alignment through Camden Station and north through Penn Station to the Baltimore Museum of Art." As of last week, it had 248 signatures.

Notably, the options outlined in September's Red Line alternatives analysis don't include an option for heavy rail. Heavy rail, a vague term that encompasses a lot of rail transit styles, means in this case transit in the style of the existing Metro--longer and faster (theoretically) trains that are powered by a ground level "third rail," as opposed to the overhead wires that power light rail trains. Because of that third rail, and because of the longer trains, heavy rail always needs its own right-of-way--it can't share roads or most existing trackway. Hence, it's the most expensive.

And, hence, heavy rail wasn't considered in the alternative analysis. "[Heavy rail] would have been great but, on the other hand, the FTA isn't really building heavy rail anywhere [anymore]," Kelly Clifton, an urban planning professor at the University of Maryland, explains. The alternatives analysis estimates that heavy rail from the Social Security Administration to Johns Hopkins Bayview campus would cost between $2.2 and $2.6 billion, putting either one out of reach of federal financing guidelines by over 200 percent.

A few weeks ago, we sat down with Chris Merriam, TRAC's director of public information, to discuss the organization's proposals, notably a heavy rail option that uses the Amtrak and MARC routes already in existence--routing away from Edmondson Village, Fells Point, I-70, the Social Security Administration complex, and, possibly, Canton--in East and West Baltimore, thus recouping, hopefully, enough of the addition cost of heavy rail to make it feasible. "I don't think any of the preferred alternatives would be bad, I just don't think they're going to get selected," Merriam says. (According to the MTA's alternatives analysis, three Red Line options were within reach of federal New Starts financing guidelines.) "We're not saying that Fells, Canton, Edmondson, and Security don't need or deserve better transit service," Merriam explains in a follow-up e-mail. "They absolutely do. We just think that shoehorning light rail into those areas is foolish and overly expensive."

The Red Line study did examine a heavy-rail routing beginning at the Social Security Administration and ending at Canton, utilizing a similar strategy of following existing Amtrak/MARC rights of way. It was found to have a cost-effectiveness of $56.71 per "user benefit hour," which is at least double the FTA's guideline of $24 per user benefit hour. Thus, it was left out of the final 12 options outlined in the alternatives analysis.

Merriam does bring up important concerns, however, about either a light-rail line of rapid transit bus line's impact on two neighborhoods in particular, Edmonson Village and Canton, where reduced lanes and noise will be issues to overcome. (Beyond cost, neighborhood impacts are one of the key reasons TRAC is advocating heavy rail.) While a Red Line supporter overall, City Councilman Jim Kraft (1st District) expresses some reservations about the proposed line's routing from Fells Point to Canton via the relatively narrow Boston Street. "I'd like to see some changes with how far they take it underground," he explained in a telephone interview. "I think it's very difficult to take it down [that route]."

Others are less pessimistic about the impact of light rail trains on neighborhoods. "Every single place you try to put in something, you're going to face that same problem from people close to it," says Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant with the advocacy group Light Rail Now. "I've never ever found light rail to be a divider. If anything it brings sides together--trains are less frequent than auto or bus traffic. All I can say [about the noise factor] is it's certainly not a problem. The roar a bus makes is different than the noise a train makes.

"It really is more a case where people who have experienced [light rail] tend to be more savvy, whereas if it's something you don't know, [than it's more imposing]."

Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the city Department of Transportation, is optimistic about being able to work through potential problems. "We're committed to working through these issues in partnership with the neighborhoods," he writes in an e-mail to City Paper. "We've seen in Portland and Seattle how neighborhoods have come together to make sure that there is no 'neighborhood fracturing' through good urban design, pedestrian safety measures, and strategic investments in neighborhood projects. That's what Mayor Dixon is committed to doing with the Red Line."

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