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Mobtown Beat

Red Line Fever

Behind the hype and hysteria surrounding the proposed new light-rail project

Frank Hamilton
A sign of red-line resistance in Canton Square.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 9/23/2009

This past summer, Gov. Martin O'Malley selected what's known as alternative "4C" as the preferred route for the planned Red Line, MTA's long overdue extension of Baltimore's stunted public rail-transit network. The plan, as drafted, is to run a light-rail train from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Security Square Mall on the city's western edge to the Johns Hopkins Bayview medical campus on the east, via Edmondson Village, Poppleton, downtown, Fells Point, and Canton. Tunnels will travel underneath Cooks Lane and downtown, with the rest of the line at street level.

Save for the usual anti-tax zealots who oppose projects like this on principle, it's been the "street level" that's raised the most opposition to the project among Baltimoreans. A very vocal opposition is campaigning against the plan for stated reasons that range from fears about property values to noise to fears of increased congestion.

According to WJZ-TV (channel 13), the U.S. Senate approved an early $4 million in federal funds for the project last week; there will surely be lawsuits and more protests in the project's future, but derailment seems like less and less a possibility as times goes on. A brief rundown on what the fuss is about:

The Plan: Run surface light-rail trains on Boston Street and Edmondson Avenue.

The Pitch: These two thoroughfares aren't the only places MTA's proposed light-rail route will travel aboveground, but they're the two that have attracted the most controversy. Most everyone agrees that trains running underground here-and, really, everywhere-are preferable, but MTA has to work within tight financial guidelines to qualify for federal funding under the New Starts program, the periodic pool of money allocated for new local mass-transit programs. And underground rail, one of several options considered by the governor's office, pushes the tab way too far to qualify, totaling close to $3 billion. The plan known as alternative 4C, the one selected by the governor and featuring aboveground track on Edmondson and Boston, will run about $1.6 billion, with the Federal Transit Administration picking up the tab for up to 60 percent. With a $2 billion state-budget shortfall projected next year, don't expect Maryland to be shouldering anything like this on its lonesome. Without New Starts dollars, the Red Line just wouldn't happen.

The Problem: On Edmondson Avenue, light-rail trains will run in the median and shouldn't affect parking or traffic substantially. But the debacle of West Baltimore's failed "highway to nowhere" project still lingers more than 30 years later, and residents worry about having their neighborhood split by light-rail lines. Frequently cited concerns include a reduction of available cross streets for automobile traffic on Edmondson to every four blocks, limited and dangerous pedestrian crossings, and limited access for emergency traffic. Yet, running trains down a residential boulevard like Edmondson isn't exactly a revolutionary concept-until 1953, the same median hosted streetcar traffic.

Boston Street is even wider than Edmondson-and, unlike Edmondson, it isn't a primary thoroughfare-but it runs through the nexus of the Red Line opposition. For a portion of the Boston Street route, the train would travel in the median, and for the remainder would travel both ways on the north side of the street. The project isn't even in its engineering phase, but residents-a very vocal segment of them-are freaked out about loss of parking and increased congestion. In truth, at this point MTA doesn't know exactly how many lanes of traffic or how many parking spots would be lost.

So far, opponents haven't come up with a convincing case of a project like this that has harmed a neighborhood, save for Baltimore's own Howard Street. An ugly mess of overheads, poorly maintained stations, and confusing traffic management, the stretch is a good worst-case scenario. It's worth noting that Howard Street was in rough shape to begin with, and more importantly, the light rail that runs along it was built in 1993, during the first boom of light-rail systems and on a shoestring budget. (Baltimore's initial light-rail line was built without help from federal money, and it shows).

Modern trains, however, are almost unrecognizable from the light rail Baltimore knows-sleek, quiet, and low-profile. And MTA has been quick to emphasize the myriad ways train lines can be aesthetically improved, from grass railbeds to lightweight, unobtrusive "streetcar" style overhead wires. And, yes, it's bizarre that trains are actually stopping at red lights on Howard, but modern lines are well-coordinated with traffic, sporting signal pre-emption systems that are far more "artful" than anything Baltimore's seen. Portland, Ore.'s, Interstate Avenue route is a frequently cited example of all of these things done right: pedestrian crossings are nearly as frequent as they were pre-train and are well-marked with approaching train indicators.

The Plan: A new light-rail line will improve quality of life in the neighborhoods it serves.

The Pitch: It's one of the tenets of urban planning-people want to live in places they can get to and from easily. Add to that reductions in pollution, traffic congestion, and noise that happen when people get out of their cars, and city living becomes that much more tenable.

The Problem: Neighborhood concerns in Canton are primarily about livability. As in, a train running on surface streets through Canton will be an eyesore and the explosively gentrified area will revert to its pre-boom stage thanks to things like gridlock, train noise, and plummeting property values. But existent light-rail trains across the country have only increased property values-a study conducted on Denver's rapidly expanding light-rail network found that property values within a half-mile of stations increased by 17.6 percent; in St. Louis, they increased 32 percent; along New Jersey's MidTOWN DIRECT line, values went up over 100 percent in 10 years time. As Canton grows even more, expect its car-friendliness to diminish quickly, with or without light rail. As for noise, most studies conclude that noise from light-rail trains is negated by being in and around traffic. That is, the ambient noise of traffic is louder than a light-rail train. 

The Plan: The Red Line will catalyze development.

The Pitch: One of the criteria that applicants for federal-transit dollars face is Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Simply, stations and routings of new lines have to be located in areas viable for increased development-light rail is an urban-renewal scheme as well. Trendy, upmarket Clipper Mill-a woodsy enclave with a light-rail stop at its base-is one example, but elsewhere, rail-transit lines have spurred literal urban villages: Portland, Ore.'s Orenco Station, for example, or Oakland's formerly depressed City Center redevelopment. Since the inception of Phoenix, Az.'s 20-mile light-rail line, nearly $3 billion dollars has been spent in private investment along the corridor. 

The Problem: The Red Line could be great for an area like Edmondson Village. The catch is that, under the current plan, the neighborhood only has one stop. But the area around that one stop-particularly with the thousand-plus-residential-unit Uplands project underway-and other areas, such as the West Baltimore MARC station and the Highlandtown station, are primed for redevelopment. The city, however, needs to be proactive if anything is to come of TOD, and no concrete plans have been laid out. TOD isn't a build-it-and-they-will-come proposition.

The Plan: Salve local developers with $1.6 billion dollars in tax money.

The Pitch: The No Train Tracks Through Canton blog calls it "Ed Hale's light rail," referring to the 1st Mariner Bankcorp owner and developer responsible for the skyscraping Canton Crossing that looms over Canton, the harbor, and the industrial areas east of Canton. Canton Crossing would get its own stop, which should be good news for the development project, which hasn't exactly been a rousing success. 

The Problem: Hale and his business extensions coughed up $20,000 in 2006 for O'Malley's election fund, and polite palm greasing in Maryland politics isn't exactly news. That said, running light rail through Canton makes too much sense to get all wild-eyed about political conspiracies. If a spur to, say, Westport-a development still confined to paper-materialized, it might raise an eyebrow, but this accusation seems overly convenient for a massive, billion-dollar-plus project. And do we need to point out that the 1st Mariner Tower is more of an eyesore than a light-rail train could ever be?

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