Over the past thirty years, Baltimore has expanded its rail system steadily, opening its Metro Subway in 1983, its light rail lines in 1992, and adding extensions to the corridors in 1994 and 1997. Now Maryland’s Department of Transportation, which runs the city’s system, is planning an east-west light rail Red Line that will begin operating as early as 2016 if the state manages to convince the federal government to supply a New Starts transit grant to pay for the project. With that project underway, the city’s leaders are pushing further discussion about the city’s future transit needs. For years, an extension of the Green Line Metro northeast to Morgan State University and Martin State Airport was assumed to be the next step.
But in a recent report, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance described its priorities for transit-oriented investment in the Baltimore region and argued that the state should advance a new north-south Yellow Line connecting Lutherville and Columbia. Its route would partially share the existing Blue Line light rail alignment and add new sections of line in Baltimore and in the suburbs. The group, a coalition of business and non-profit leaders in the area, still argues for the eventual completion of the Green Line, which has been on transit plans since 1966.
The CMTA’s analysis of transit-supportive development, however, suggests that the Yellow Line would be more likely to create a “culture of transit,” according to the president of the organization. The Green Line, they argue, would provide fewer opportunities for redeveloping existing cities.
How meaningful is the group’s endorsement of the Yellow Line? Should the city and state, which have advanced plans for the Metro extension, change their course? Who will benefit from each project’s completion?
The northern section of the Yellow Line, connecting Camden Yards to Lutherville via Charles Center, Johns Hopkins, and Towson, seems like a reasonable investment, putting the latter city 18 minutes away from the Inner Harbor. It would provide better transit to the relatively dense areas along Charles Street, especially the redeveloping zones in Charles Village. It would connect a number of colleges and medical centers to the downtown core. On the other hand, the most productive (southern) portions of this route are planned to be covered by the planned Charles Street Trolley which would be cheaper to build, though slower for users.
The southern portion of the Yellow Line, on the other hand, seems to be another example of the sprawl-inducing transit in which Maryland specializes. While Columbia itself has a relatively “dense” downtown (oriented around a mall), one wonders whether its inhabitants would use a light rail system taking them through Guilford and Dorsey towards BWI Airport, where they would be able to continue on to trains heading into downtown Baltimore. The Yellow Line proposal would give commuters an astonishingly long 1h10 commute between Columbia and downtown Baltimore. The suburbs through which the train would travel may well grow into more transit-friendly communities, but they are likely to retain their auto dependencies.
On the other hand, the extension of the Metro Subway, dubbed the Green Line, would reach up into some of Baltimore’s densest, most transit-deprived, and poorest neighborhoods before heading to White Marsh, which has a growing suburban downtown also centered on a mall. A trip from White Marsh to Charles Center downtown would take 26 minutes. Plans would extend the project to Martin State Airport south from there. A quick review of the route indicates far more potential for infill projects along this line and what would likely be higher ridership. One significant problem: the Metro Subway, being heavy rail, would require a fully separated right-of-way either underground or elevated above the street.
Baltimore, then, has a fundamental problem: should it invest more money in a more productive project, even if it gets fewer route miles out of each buck? Or, should it decide to spend money on light rail, which will attract fewer passengers and provide inferior service, but cost a whole lot less?
Another question that may be worth evaluating: does race and class have a role to play in the CMTA’s route selection? While the Yellow Line’s route would provide service to predominately white and relatively higher-income neighborhoods, the Green Line would serve poor and black communities that have suffered from disinvestment over the years. Is the “culture of transit” for which the group’s president pushes merely an attempt to address the fact that middle class whites in Baltimore do not ride public transportation? Is there no advantage in improving the transportation options of people already dependent on trains and buses?
Rather than focus on choosing to complete either the full Yellow Line or the full Green Line, seemingly the only option offered by the CMTA, Baltimore should refocus on the sections of those projects most likely to be successful. Build the Yellow Line from Camden Yards north to Lutherville but not west from BWI Airport to Columbia. Build the Green Line from the existing terminus of the Metro Subway at Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University and perhaps White Marsh, but no further. These projects have the most potential for high ridership and would spur the most infill development of those suggested for the city as a whole. A light rail route to Columbia should be last on the list of prioritized investments.
Image above: Baltimore Region Rail System Plan Map, from Baltimore Rail Plan