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Railroaded?

Baltimore's Billion-Dollar Mass-Transit Plan is Chugging Along, But One Local Man Wants to Switch Tracks

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 12/25/2002

What has six multicolored arms, adds up to 109 miles in length, and will cost at least a cool $12 billion?

Answer: The Baltimore Regional Rail System Plan unveiled this past March. A 23-member, blue-ribbon committee assembled by Maryland's Transportation secretary--politicians, significant business figures, civic leaders, and transit specialists--took a year to develop the plan. It represents the first extensive regional mass-transit proposal for the metro area in more than 30 years and aims--over the next four decades--to give Baltimore a rail-based mass-transit system that can begin to rival Washington's popular Metro. (See www.baltimorerailplan.com.)

"Imagine . . . a system of fast, convenient, and reliable rail lines running throughout the region, connecting all of life's important activities," reads the plan's first page.

Erstwhile mathematics teacher (currently on medical disability) and mass-transit enthusiast Edward Cohen has no trouble imagining such a scenario. He's just afraid the current plan--and the time line designed to bring it about--might not allow us to achieve it. Cohen, 54, a member of the Transit Riders Group and a frequent user of the city's mass-transit system, has devised his own plan to address what he feels are shortcomings in the Baltimore Regional Rail System Plan.

"We're betting the redevelopment of the region on this plan," he says. "We're talking billions of dollars, so we have to make sure we do it right. That means the long-range planning has to be complete and we have to consider alternatives. No one wants to repeat the blunders of the past."

The most common complaint about the city's current mass-transit system is its lack of connectivity. The light rail doesn't connect with the subway. The subway, in turn, doesn't connect with the MARC commuter trains. Cohen blames improper planning and short-term thinking for this disjointedness.

Take the light rail. A 1968 transit plan called for a major north-south subway line running largely under St. Paul Street. Cohen, who was living in New York at the time but followed the process, says the proposal languished until there was talk of building a new downtown stadium, which prompted a need for improved mass transit. City officials were eager to make the new ballpark a viable, accessible venue--and anxious to have the Orioles sign a long-term lease on the facility. However, they figured digging the subway would take too long, and so the light rail was rushed through as a cheaper alternative.

"It's the wrong mode in the wrong place and was the last nail in the coffin for our shopping district," Cohen says of the light rail, which today barrels down Howard Street. "It takes people to the stadium events nicely, and the trains are empty all day long."

Cohen is quick to say "there are no villains" at the helm of the current plan, and feels the mandate to design a system for 40 years hence is valid--if anything, he says, such a scope doesn't look far enough into the future. He also feels the current plan fails to account for Maglev--a system of high-speed, magnetically elevated trains that may one day connect Washington, Baltimore, and beyond--and Baltimore's current freight-train bottleneck. Indeed, the current plan calls for putting increased localized passenger service on existing rail lines serving freight.

Cohen didn't just get frustrated by the region's transportation shortsightedness, he got busy--and developed his own regional rail plan. He tapped his mathematical skills to create an interconnected system wherein riders are never more than one train transfer away from any stop on the system. Limiting the number of times system users have to switch trains is a key, Cohen says, to making mass transit an efficient alternative to driving. And while the committee's rail plan is essentially a traditional spoke system, with all rail lines funneling into downtown, Cohen's plan includes a belt line to accommodate commuters traveling from one suburb to another--a growing trend.

"I've seen his plan, and it's brilliant," says retired transportation planning consultant Jack Mowll, one of the original planners of Washington's Metro and scores of other transit systems around the world. "The problem is that, being an independent person, [Cohen] has a hard time selling it."

J. Craig Forrest, manager of transportation planning for Baltimore County, has also seen Cohen's handiwork and says, "he's done his homework and he knows what he's talking about."

"He believes the [committee's] plan is not comprehensive enough and he has a lot of good technical reasons for what he's espousing," Forrest says. "The problem I have with [his plan] is that I question the capability of the state, county, city--whatever--to fund that extensive a system. The committee's plan is a $12 billion plan. I can't imagine what his would cost."

Cohen admits that he doesn't have a mileage count or an estimated price tag for his system, but he stresses that his goal isn't to have his brainchild embraced totally; he just wants its ideas and concepts to be given consideration, and perhaps adopted. But then he doesn't shy away from spending public monies. He describes one component of his plan as "the most expensive public-works project in the state's history--but we have to do it."

Cohen calls for rerouting freight trains from the 19th-century Howard Street tunnel passing under the city, through a new four-tube track north of the McHenry Tunnel. The Howard Street tunnel fire in July 2001, which broke a water main and essentially halted traffic for five days, convinced him that "we can no longer risk sending [hazardous material] freight trains through the Howard Street tunnel under the heart of the city." And after Sept. 11, he figures, you have to view the tunnel as a potential terrorist target as well. Cohen, however, doesn't have a problem using the Howard Tunnel for passenger service, and once the freight trains are gone, the nearly 1.7-mile tunnel could become another asset to be used by the city's transit system.

Cohen has outlined his plan before the committee at a number of public meetings, and he has also met one-on-one with a handful of Baltimore Regional Transportation Board members. Among them is Baltimore City director of transportation Alfred Foxx, who says, "[Cohen] has a lot of good thoughts, but I think the regional rail plan set up by the committee is a solid concept and something we can move forward with."

Cohen is holding out hope that his plan can be formally presented to the committee as an alternative 'straw plan' for comparative purposes, but time is running out. The Federal Transportation Equity Act, which provides federal money for regional surface transportation projects, is up reauthorization next September, by which time jurisdictions seeking federal funds for local transit projects have to have their requests finalized.

"Glendening wanted to get it into the pipeline for funding reasons," says Cohen. "It has to happen. Even people who are pro-highway have to understand that we are in noncompliance with federal air-quality standards. We are in danger of losing our highway matching funds from the federal government very soon."

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