Transit Riders Action Council
of Metropolitan Baltimore
TRAC's Red Line
Why Metro Subway must be studied for Baltimore's Red Line
By Nate Payer
Director of Public Information
27 November 2005
For More Info Contact: 410.837.0225 or go to www.GetOnTRAC.org
What is this CAC alternative I hear about for Baltimore's Red Line that supposedly is not being considered? I heard it wants Metro Subway to be built-and a north-south alignment.
The CAC alternative was created by the Maryland Transit Administration's Citizens' Advisory Committee (CAC). CAC members are chosen by MTA officials to represent the concerns of transit riders. TRAC's current president, Edward Cohen, was a member of the CAC at the time and was the main designer of the CAC alternative and primary author of the CAC Report. The report was commissioned by the CAC to address any issues and/or problems concerning the first phase of Baltimore's grand metropolitan rail plan. The first phase included an east-west line from the Social Security Administration to Fells Point, known as the Red Line and an extension of our current Metro Subway line to Morgan State University, dubbed the Green Line.
Indeed the report called for the Red Line to be constructed as Metro Subway, known generically as heavy rail or heavy rail transit (HRT) and a significant re-alignment of the proposed Red Line with a long portion routed in a north-south direction.
Coincidently or not, the day after the Report was approved by the CAC, Secretary of Transportation Robert Flanagan removed HRT from consideration as a mode for the Red Line. The MTA also never allowed the report to be posted on its website.
Hey, don't get me wrong, Metro systems like DC's are great. But look, aren't you guys being picky? Light Rail can be a great asset. It's done wonders in some of the cities I've been to. It seems to be almost indistinguishable from HRT.
Light Rail transit (LRT) and HRT are not the same. In fact the difference between HRT and LRT is about as great as the difference between LRT and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) although the industry still hasn't really decided what BRT actually is.
For starters, HR trains can carry more people, operate more often, and reach significantly higher speeds- But when light rail is running separate from automobile traffic, it's just as fast as subway. When stops are close together, subway can't get up to its top speed anyway. That's not much different.
It is that much different, because in that short distance between stops, HRT can accelerate and decelerate much more sharply than LRT and reach a faster maximum speed than LRT could ever achieve. And more clearly, on long stretches HRT can quickly reach a maximum cruising speed of about 70 mph. Light Rail rarely exceeds 50 mph. Being competitive in speed and time with the private automobile is critical; the faster the system, the more choice riders will make the switch to the train.
Then why are all these cities flocking to LRT? And the Feds keep funding LRT. I haven't seen the same excitement from them for HRT that you exhibit.
In most of those other cities the advantages to building HRT are negligible compared to building LRT. Most of those other cities will never need the high capacity or the frequency because they are smaller or less dense than the Baltimore area.
What about the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) policy that precludes funding for heavy rail projects?
There is no such policy.
But Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary Robert Flanagan said no one builds heavy rail anymore.
That is somewhat happenstance. Almost every city that would need or benefit from heavy rail already has heavy rail. The secretary is also incorrect, because every city with HRT systems is seeking to expand their HRT. Besides New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. are currently being funded for extensions.
But what about the fact that HRT is too expensive and the Feds don't have the money?
Wait a minute, that's a question that needs some breaking down. Firstly, Secretary Flanagan, MDOT, MTA, and the media confuse the public with terminology. The expense of a project is largely determined by grade separation-not mode-
-What exactly is grade-separation? And for that matter what is ROW?
Grade separation means that the transit route is completely independent of other traffic including automobiles, roads, people, and other train lines. In essence it is a "closed" system. This provides vastly superior reliability, speed, and safety. HRT must be grade-separated because of its electric third rail and its computer control tracking system.
ROW means "right-of-way". A ROW is a path that is available for a specific use. The railroad companies have ROWs where their tracks are laid. A ROW for transit means a path that is not shared with automobile traffic. It still may, nevertheless, contain many crossings with automobile or other form of traffic. Most LRT projects are constructed with a majority of their alignments in previously existing ROWs.
Since HRT must be grade separated, it tends to be more expensive than LRT projects. Seattle is building an extremely expensive LRT project that is mostly grade separated.
Secondly, funding is tight and not growing much for transit projects (at the moment), and the number of cities competing for funds has increased dramatically as of late. This does not mean the feds will not finance a HRT project. They still analyze each project for its cost-effectiveness and benefits.
Lastly, HRT is not too expensive. It is affordable if the project is broken into multiple segments. If we can afford to look at a LRT project with several segments of tunnel that could cost up to $2 billion, then we can afford HRT and are therefore in violation of FTA New Starts guidelines by not studying it.
How are we in violation of guidelines? MTA said they are not required to study HRT.
There is no requirement to study HRT. But technically appropriate modes or alignments cannot be excluded from study unless it is known that such a mode or alignment cannot be afforded with matching state or local funds for capital and operating costs. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council has already allocated $2 billion to be spent for a Red Line project over the next two decades. We can afford it!
We really need an east-west line. I want to go to Fells Point. We already have two north-south lines. We don't need another right now. Everyone promised us a line from Social Security to Fells. What gives?
It would be great to go to Fells Point using rapid transit, and it makes great sense to have a line connecting downtown with the southeast waterfront. However, Baltimore really needs a north-south subway line more than a connection to Fells at this stage of the game.
Looking more closely, the current Metro Subway line is not a N/S line. Its alignment, and ultimate intended White Marsh destination clearly make the route more E/W than N/S. Even the automated station announcer refers to "east-bound" and "west-bound" trains. Our Central Light Rail (CLR) is very much a N/S line. But it has several critical flaws that doom its abilities to perform as such.
The northern stretch of the CLR from North Ave to Lutherville follows an old commuter and freight line in the Jones Falls valley. This stretch is the city's (and one of Baltimore County's) least densely populated section(s) of town. It is in a valley, which makes it difficult to access and is located near few institutions. Even with this rail line, the JFV has some of the lowest transit ridership in the city. Not to mention that the downtown Hoard Street section runs on the surface and is forced to travel at bus-like speeds its entire route. The trip between Penn Station and Camden Station takes 18 minutes! Even with soon to be implemented signal priority-that's where the stop light signals are timed to accommodate the trains' arrival-the trip length will only be reduced to 13 or 15 minutes! Such slow operating efficiency makes the CLR an ineffective means to transverse downtown.
But the cold reality of our "Blue Line" CLR will confront us when the Howard Street Tunnel begins its rebuilding process. Yes CSX, the modern-day descendants of the good ol' Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, have a shallow-earth tunnel underneath Howard St. that carries freight traffic. The tunnel is old, poorly maintained and cannot accommodate the loads of modern freight traffic. A 2002 report indicated plans to rebuild the tunnel within the next 5-15 years. Such a rebuilding would require the excavation of Howard St and the end of our light rail service.
What do you mean, end?
Well, excavating the tunnel would require Howard St to be "ripped open". Of course at that point there would be no rails on top of Howard St for the CLR to ride on.
That doesn't mean service will completely end for the Central Light Rail.
Probably it would. Because at that point the train would miss so many downtown locations and transit connections that ridership would drop to the point that the MTA would lose large amounts of money to operate the service and be forced to shutdown the system. No one would be able to get to the north side from the south side or vice/versa without transferring twice with a bus. Few people would do that, and certainly no choice riders would.
What about some story about moving the freight out of the tunnel altogether and building a tunnel underneath the harbor from Locust Point to Canton? You don't know for sure that Howard Street will get dug up.
That would be a great idea, and most people in the biz want it to happen. That would make sense. Nobody wants Howard St ripped up and downtown traffic and transit disrupted for 5-10 years and then receive no social or economic benefit from the project upon completion other than knowing that there is more toxic freight running underneath downtown faster and more often than before. Unfortunately, reconstructing the Howard St tunnel costs some $231 million whereas this tunnel under the harbor would cost $4.5-6 billion. Eek! There is simply too much uncertainty to gamble on whether the freight companies will get the money to construct this tunnel in time before Howard St falls into complete disrepair and the severing of our N/S transit line.
Even still, the city and the region could deal with it. It would not be the end of the world, and the Light Rail would come back eventually.
If that is the logic metro Baltimore would like to use for planning high-cost capital transportation projects, so be it. But one doubts the Feds would take kindly to that reasoning after doling out over $150 million for double tracking our CLR, knowing that we were planning a project that excludes alternatives that would preserve and protect current and past investments. Does it make sense to you to construct a second rail line that would connect with neither Penn Station nor Camden Station (the current "Green² HRT line doesn't), our two main transportation terminals within city limits?
Alright, I certainly see how this Howard St tunnel will cause problems for us, but that could happen anyway whether we build anything or not. That still doesn't justify why going north/south will save the CLR and Baltimore transit as we know it.
Ah, we are getting there. The CAC alternative does many things. Absolutely, a strong east-west line for our region is justified and warranted. We've got many commuters from outside Baltimore City and into Howard County who currently commute to their jobs in and around the city center. We've got packed busloads transversing downtown from Dundalk to Woodlawn.
What was never considered during the Red Line planning process was a dip in the alignment south to Camden Station.
That's not true, I remember seeing the maps and they clearly showed an alignment along Pratt St with a stop at Camden.
Not much of a connection or transfer, really. With the actual train depot almost two blocks away, most would fail to see that stop as much of a legitimate transfer point. The Camden "dip", as it is called, allows a rider direct access to a very important transportation terminal and a clear, convenient connection to the possible rump end of our CLR "Blue" line.
Prior to arriving at Camden Station, the CAC Red Line would follow a basic east-west alignment similar in many respects to the one envisioned by the GRC (the Governor's Roundtable Committee, the group that was initiated by former Governor Glendening, who conceived and released Baltimore's rail plan in 2002).
But after heading out of Camden the CAC Red Line would not continue east, but head north and follow a "Yellow Line" path-
Wait, Yellow Line?
The GRC envisioned the Yellow line as a N/S line following a redundant path with our current CLR south of Camden Station and from Lutherville north, basically. Between those two points, the alignment would travel through the core of downtown to Penn Station through the uptown area and then over to the York Rd corridor to Towson. In fact, the GRC was following an alignment for rapid transit conceived several times before, dating back to shortly after 1900.
On its way out of Camden it would intersect at the focal-point station in the system, Charles Center. Continuing up St. Paul St., the line would make a stop at the city's historical and cultural juggernaut neighborhood: Mt. Vernon. Then north to Penn Station.
That's where you could connect with the other end of the severed Central Light Rail?
Exactly. You've essentially killed two birds with one stone, but several times over. In one move, Penn Station and Camden Station are connected with a line that will take only 6 minutes to travel (verses 13 to 15 in the enlightened CLR scenario). You have connected with Charles Center/Inner Harbor and the old Financial District. Even with all the great new development along Howard St on the downtown's Westside, it will never have the commercial density as the old financial district or the Inner Harbor. Specifically, travelers heading into Penn Station will now take the Red Line subway to downtown, because it's where they need to go and in the time they have to spend. Faster than a bus and certainly way cheaper than a taxicab.
With a temporary rerouting of the Red Line in the place of the Yellow Line, Baltimore will get a new east-west and north-south line simultaneously. But wait, this line is not done yet.
Still not done? Come on, this thing is gonna cost $100 trillion!
It would continue north under Maryland Ave and terminate at the Baltimore Museum of Art on the south side of Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. We would then have a subway line following Baltimore's densest, most culturally and institutionally rich corridor.
You sound like those neighborhoods "deserve" the Red Line more. Look, Inner Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton have a lot of the same things too.
They do, no one can argue that they don't. But there are a few things that alignment doesn't have that make "north" the way to go; specifically the concern about a $100 trillion project.
What was mentioned before about cost-effectiveness and benefits regarding the FTA and New Starts projects still holds true. The MTA is currently studying a "10.5 mile transit line² from the Social Security area to Canton. The CAC alternative is a 12.25 mile HRT line/segment from the Social Security Administration to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The recent trend as far as federal funding is concerned is for a 50% match, wherein the feds cough up about half the capital construction costs for the project. This is less than the 60-90% match of years ago. They also appear to have enacted a "de facto" match cap of about $500 million per funding cycle.
The federal government authorizes money to be spent on transportation projects in lump sums for six-year periods. And in recent years they tend to give out no more than $500 mil for any one project. So, if you want a full match your projects are capped at about $1 billion in each cycle.
Wait a minute, I remember hearing way back in 2002 that this Red Line could cost from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion. There's no way were going to able to afford this at all, Secretary Flanagan was right. I guess we'll have to settle for Bus Rapid Transit or surface Light Rail. You've made a case for why the CAC alternative would be good, but there clearly isn't enough money to build it, so that's why there're not studying it!
You have just walked into the argument and rationale that MDOT and MTA planning would have you believe makes perfect sense. But their reasoning fails-
And it fails at every level.
Much of their rhetoric is based on the obfuscation of a few facts. Remember what we said about grade separation and mode?
There is a constant retort that HRT is too expensive to build. No, tunneling is more expensive than elevation, which in turn is more expensive than creating a new surface ROW, which can be more expensive than a trolley in mixed traffic. Mode has little to do with expense when making bridges or tunnels.
Let's get it right. Grade-separating can be expensive, whether its LRT or HRT or even BRT. BRT may be less expensive than either HRT or LRT on the surface because tracks are not needed, but the big costs in projects such as the Red Line arise with alignments that are not surface.
Moreover, there is no sound reasoning why all of this line must be built under the limit of one funding cycle. The only usable rationale would be to say that getting something now is better than nothing now or something better later, even if that something now is ineffectual or destructive to the city and region.
But we can't wait 20 years to build the Red Line! We need something now!
More accurately, we needed something yesterday.
Baltimore is not like most of the other cities currently competing for funds for a LRT line. It is much more akin to the cities that currently have HRT/Metro systems. This means that like the other HRT cities, we are densely populated with a minimum of free and easy paths to put a transit line without seriously disrupting the urban fabric.
Therefore, anything we build is going to cost a lot of money. Anything we build will be more expensive than almost any other New Starts project in the country. Even a completely surface "bus rapid" line would easily cost $200 million in today's dollars. We know of almost no communities who are interested or would accept BRT through their area. A surface BRT line could never possibly be much more than a limited service bus. The new #40 route, implemented in October, follows a route similar to the would-be Red Line. Some runs have gone completely un-patronized.
In the competitive New Starts process, Baltimore cannot compare itself to the projects put forth by most of the other cities.
Because we do not have the old freight railroad ROWs to convert to LRT, we are not like other cities. (We did build a LRT line on an old freight/commuter ROW, we used the one practical ROW we had, and it has some of the lowest ridership of any LRT line in the country).
Because we do not have the wide medians between boulevards and avenues to place and operate LRT lines efficiently and non-disruptively, we would have to have a mostly street running/mixed traffic LRT. That could come in at around $500 million.
We could afford that. That's less than the $1 billion max to get funded in one cycle.
That's right. But we're back to the same quandary as the BRT scenario. The feds look at cost-effectiveness and a benefit-cost analysis. That is a lot of money for a line that would behave like a multi-car trolley and severely disrupt downtown services and activities. Its operating speed would be so slow that it would in fact be slower than a limited service bus. A LR train must follow the posted speed limit in mixed traffic conditions. How is that cost-effective? What is the benefit?
How many new riders would ride the line? How many people would ride a train that had cars speeding perilously close to its sides and getting downtown faster than the LR?
How many transit dependent people would opt out of their local bus service that gives them a direct ride to downtown almost from their doorstep to a system that requires them to transfer to a LRT system that is only slightly faster than a local service bus-thereby making their whole trip longer.
If the MTA eliminated the local bus service throughout the corridor, they might have a slight money savings on operating costs because of LRT's better economy of scale.
What is economy of scale?
This means that even as overall costs increase because the size of the system (light rail vs. bus) is bigger, each unit (person) in the system will cost less to transport. Put simply, a packed bus will carry 80 or so people with one operator and his salary. A packed light rail train carries 500 people with one operator and his salary. That often makes rail more efficient than bus. But rail has high fixed operating costs, so you'd better have a lot of people riding the trains to get the savings. BRT has virtually no economy of scale, thereby making it a very expensive system to operate for large numbers of people.
And the only way to do that with a surface Red Line would be to force people to have longer trips than they do now.
Huh? How is that an advantage? What is the benefit for transit riders, the communities, and would-be transit riders?
But Secretary Flanagan did say tunneling downtown would be affordable. So that would make it better than the current Light Rail. Right?
Wrong. That is another illusion of this process. If the Red Line were tunneled only downtown, it would certainly save downtown from the constant disruption of a car/train collision and endless congestion, but it would do very little to improve service on the line as a whole. A 1-mile segment of tunnel under downtown would only slightly speed up travel times but vastly increase the costs-now up to about $725 million.
Remember, the CLR is in its own ROW almost everywhere outside of downtown. It's still rather sluggish. But a Red Line in tunnel below downtown would still have most of the remainder of its route on slow and traffic clogged city streets!
Bottom line-it'll still be slower than the CLR. You can check with the project engineers for verification of these assertions. The benefits have increased ever so slightly. The cost just ballooned because of the tunnel.
The costs do seem high and the benefits pretty limited, but they've got to be more competitive than this CAC alternative with its 12.25 miles of Metro Subway.
Not at all. Because its affordable if built over multiple funding cycles.
You could easily built the 1-mile tunnel LRT alternative in multiple funding cycles. Then it's only $241 million in 3 cycles.
The problem with that approach is that a short segment of such a line would have such low ridership as to not justify running the system. And we know the reasons it would have low ridership.
Why would the CAC alternative have good enough ridership to justify building it in multiple cycles?
Inner Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton are dense areas, worthy of being served by Metro Subway. However, the initial cost of creating a rapid transit line is so great, that to be competitive in the federal process and to keep operating costs below that of running lots of buses, one must select the route that will yield the greatest ridership at the greatest operating speed at a contained capital cost. The SE sections have lots of density, but they don't have the transit connections like the north. The SE cuts off past Brewers Hill yielding large swaths of industrial territory before arriving in the Dundalk area. There are few bus lines feeding the area and a limited number of auto-oriented commuter park&ride options for the Red Line. A line heading north has heavy travel density as well as population density all the way through Towson-metro Baltimore's second largest business center. The number of bus lines that could feed into the BMA station is enormous. And getting off the bus and transferring to the subway would beat staying on the bus all the way downtown. Its only 8 minutes from the BMA to Charles Center. You cannot beat that with a stick or an automobile even in the middle of the night. The number of buses that could be removed from the streets and the cost savings would be considerable.
And HRT simply has better ridership than LRT. The ridership on HRT is about 2 to 2.5 greater than that of light rail nationwide. In Baltimore it's closer to 3.5 times! The safety, speed, and reliability of a fully grade separated system attracts large numbers of choice riders.
But how is this going to be more affordable than a LRT alternative with one mile of tunnel? The CAC has lots of tunnel, right?
It has a considerable amount of tunnel, but no more than some of the MTA's LRT versions from SSA to Canton.
There are also some newer constraints. Downtown is extremely hostile to any surface anywhere in their district. The southwest of the city is adamant that the Red Line must be in tunnel through their area (and appropriately so.) That renders the line with 3.5 to 4 miles of tunneling, minimum.
No matter what, the line could not be funded in one cycle because costs would skyrocket to over $1 billion. It would become one of the most expensive LRT projects in U.S. history.
The MTA has conceded that HRT offers higher ridership and lower operating costs. What they do not concede is that even in the realm of capital construction costs, HRT can be affordable, and even cheaper than LRT. High capital cost construction is the lone ranger rationale that MDOT, Secretary Flanagan, MTA, and certain local so-called community and transit do-gooders hold as the barrier to building HRT.
Explain how that is!
Planners estimate that the east-west LRT Red Line would carry 15,000 to 25,000 riders a day. We agree that it could carry that many if most or all of the line were constructed in one cycle and if they forced riders to transfer from cut or truncated bus lines as described above. If the bus lines are not cut in such a fashion, ridership could be as low as 10,000-12,000 a day. Capital costs would range from about $500 million to $2 billion (in today's dollars, of course).
The CAC alternative would be best broken into three segments based on the funding cycles. Each segment would cost significantly under today's de facto cap of $1 billion. The first segment would be the N/S "Yellow Line" rerouted segment from Camden to the BMA. I know we need an E/W line, but we irrefutably need this N/S segment more than anything else. This line would be about 3.7 miles for about $760 million. It would conservatively carry 25,000 passengers a day. The uncertainties of the CLR line's future fade into insignificance in the mind of the everyday transit rider, as a double transfer to the Red Line subway and back to the CLR at the ends of Howard St will usually be faster than staying on the CLR non-stop.
For what it's worth: The FTA funded Minneapolis' Hiawatha LRT line for a total project cost of $713 million. Estimated ridership was to be only 19,000 riders/day in the early going. Compare the Hiawatha against the CAC example above.
Next, we extend out to Irvington in the second cycle for about $850 million. Then to SSA in the third cycle.
Total ridership estimated to be about 60,000 in today's numbers.
Total cost: about $2.2 billion to $2.4 billion in today's figures.
The first segment of the CAC would likely have the highest ridership per mile of any short segment/New Start in the country-about 6700.
TO BE CLEAR: A HRT line from SSA to Canton would be a fast, efficient, and reliable system. It would attract more riders than the LRT tunnel options currently under consideration at the MTA, buts its initial costs would be too great for the likely number of riders it would receive to be competitive in the New Starts process as compared to the CAC alignment. And a fully E/W line ignores the realities of the Howard St tunnel and the CLR.
As each segment of our rail plan is built out, the capital cost per rider will continue to decline. This occurs because our system will serve more areas and be better connected. The initial Red Line segment would cost even more had we not already built the current Metro Subway line. The greater number of possible destinations for people, the greater number of people who will use it.
Benefits: Lots of new, choice riders. Reduced air pollution. Lower operating costs for MTA. Personal monetary savings for new riders. Faster, more convenient, more reliable system for everybody. Reduced real estate footprint. Reduced traffic and/or more economic development. Energy savings. Reduced cost of downtown businesses subsidizing parking for employees. Reduced need to find or construct parking for new businesses or new construction of any kind. More opportunities for physical economic development as more properties previously used for parking become available. Significantly increased property values for real estate near most stations.
We are still searching for significant benefits with MTA's current LRT (or BRT) alternatives.
Can anything be done to get these issues on the table?
Absolutely. Contact your representative politicians, especially your state delegates and state senators in the Maryland General Assembly. Tell them you do not support a process that excludes beneficial, feasible and affordable alternatives like Metro Subway from study. Tell them that not studying such alternatives is in violation of FTA's New Start guidelines. Tell them that there are critical technical issues like the Howard St tunnel that threaten to disrupt our rail system and alternatives like the CAC must be studied to insure Baltimore has a quality, well-planned, connected and user-friendly system.
You can also sign TRAC's petition at:
What does TRAC really want?
TRAC wants a full, open process where all reasonable alternatives are studied. We know that Metro Subway is affordable, therefore it must be studied if it makes technical sense for the Red Line.
While our official position is that Metro must be studied, most of us, as well as transit users in general, feel that Metro Subway is the best possible choice. And everybody wants a system that gets you from Point A to Point B as quickly, safely and reliably as possible.
It is far more important to get all of the Red Line built right than it is to get all of the Red Line built right now.