Home | BaltimoreBrew.com
Neighborhoodsby Mark Reutter7:49 amMay 3, 20130

Red Line planner answers his critics

A detailed discussion of why Baltimore’s proposed transit line is going where it is going and using the kind of equipment it’s using.

Above: “Delivering” the Red Line is Henry Kay’s charge as chief of the MTA’s Transit Development and Delivery team.

Why run the Red Line along Boston Street? Can’t the existing Metro subway be used to route trains through downtown? Wouldn’t a network of surface streetcars serve Baltimore better than a single east-west rail line?

As the proposed Red Line takes shape as both a real project and a really expensive piece of infrastructure – questions are being raised about the wisdom of its route and design.

A group called the “Right Rail Coalition” is calling for a streetcar network, running on city streets, to replace the proposed eastern leg of the Red Line. State Senator William C. “Bill” Ferguson and other members of the 46th delegation are calling for a rethink of the Red Line.

Even the project’s staunchest backers, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings, have gotten concerned about the Red Line’s escalating pricetag.

The 14-mile line now projected at $2.575 billion, the costliest civil works in the city’s history. And there is a distinct possibility that scarce federal transit funds may go to projects that have a higher technical rating.

Why the Red Line Does What it Does

Henry M. Kay is probably the closest thing to the line’s architect. He’s been involved in transit planning at the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) since 1998.

Two years ago, he was appointed executive director for Transit Development and Delivery, responsible for getting the Red Line through the environmental reviews and other regulatory hoops needed to qualify for 50% federal funding.

We sat down with him to hear about the technical considerations that led to the line’s current route and design – and why MTA planners had considered and rejected ideas now being floated by the Right Rail Coalition and others.

• Why not run the Red Line on Eastern or Fleet streets in East Baltimore, rather than swing the line southward around Boston Street?

Mostly it’s a matter of road widths, Kay says. Both Eastern and Fleet Streets are 60 feet wide. Installing a double track would eliminate residential street parking and place the streetcars uncomfortably close to hundreds of houses in “highly stable neighborhoods,” Kay says.

Running one track down Fleet and the other down Eastern would not resolve the “closeness” issue, he adds, and would disrupt twice as many people. And running the right-of-way along a side of Patterson Park would violate federal law barring the use of parklands for transit projects unless there is no “reasonable alternative.”

Why not use the Metro subway tunnel on Baltimore Street to operate Red Line trains through downtown, saving the cost of a nearly 4-mile-mile-long tunnel from the Poppleton area of West Baltimore to Boston Street?

Kay says that the two lines are incompatible because the Metro uses an electric “third rail” and the Red Line would use overhead catenary. Plus the Red Line’s rolling stock would consist of narrow, low-floor railcars that could not be accommodated by Metro’s high-platform stations.

Converting the Red Line into a “heavy-rail” system like the Metro would  require costly tunneling throughout its route, because the third rail must be separated from all potential human contact, while the Red Line would use existing city streets across much of its right of way.

Furthermore, connecting the Red Line, coming off the Franklin-Mulberry corridor in West Baltimore, to the Metro would entail “a huge hole in the middle of Seton Hill,” Kay says, and the closing of the Metro for several years to complete the connection.

Why not run the Red Line on surface streets through downtown, much like the current Light Rail on Howard Street?

Kay said that he and the other engineers liked that idea – “We didn’t want to spent the money on a tunnel” – but they ultimately decided that surface running would be too slow and unreliable, and would make already crowded Pratt and Lombard streets even more congested.

Schematic map of the Red Line between Woodlawn and Bayview. (Maryland Transit Administration)

Schematic map of the Red Line between Woodlawn and Bayview. (Maryland Transit Administration)

A more daunting engineering problem was finding a surface route through Little Italy. “There is no grid to work with,” Kay says of the angled streets in the district that would result in tight curves and slow running times.

Across Fells Point to the east, the engineers met with more narrow streets and a longstanding pledge by the city not to turn Aliceanna and Fleet streets into “traffic sewers” by keeping the roadways bi-directional.

The solution was “a very deliberate process” of deciding to tunnel from President Street through Fells Point to a point on Boston Street where the street widened enough for the line to resurface.

That point was determined to be the intersection of Montford, Hudson and Boston – next to the American Can Company restaurant and office complex.

Artist's sketch of Red Line train. The design criteria call for a low-floor vehicle approximately 8.5 feet wide and 95 feet long, which is narrower than Metro and current Light Rail cars. (MTA)

Artist’s sketch of a Red Line train. Current design criteria call for a low-floor vehicle approximately 8.5 feet wide and 95 feet long, which is narrower than the Metro subway and Light Rail cars. (MTA)

Kay notes that Boston Street is 85 feet wide at Montford and subsequently widens to as much as 175 feet. Under the current plan, the Red Line would resurface east of Hudson Street and run in the middle of Boston for roughly 20 blocks until it picked up an old railroad right of way to Greektown and the Bayview Medical complex.

Why not use the $1-billion-plus needed to build the Red Line through East Baltimore for a network of surface streetcar lines?

“There’s a role for everything. Streetcars have a role to play, but on top of a good regional transit network,” Kay says. In other words, he could see a streetcar running along Broadway in East Baltimore, connecting the water taxi with the Red Line and Metro subway terminus at Johns Hopkins Hospital – but only as a supplement to a fast, reliable rail system.

What’s more, neither the MTA nor the city are entertaining thoughts of a streetcar system because there’s no federal money in it. Surface streetcar lines pioneered in San Diego and Portland are considered local transportation and are not part of the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts and related funding.

The FTA’s rejection last month of funding for a long-planned streetcar line in Arlington, Va., is further evidence that Washington is not willing to underwrite such projects, Kay said.

That hasn’t stopped Arlington from continuing to push for the project using other funds – or for an expansive streetcar system under development in Washington, D.C., under Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

In Baltimore, the Charm City Circular bus lines provide local transit centered on downtown tourist attractions, supplemented by MTA’s traditional bus service.

Where’s the Money?

The MTA is angling for as much as 48% federal funding for the Red Line. The line scores a “medium high rating” from the FTA, giving it a fighting chance to secure federal funds, though not necessarily in the amount – or during the years – that the MTA is looking for.

The other half the Red Line’s cost would be paid by Maryland residents through the Transportation Trust Fund, whose revenues come chiefly from the state tax on gasoline.

Gov. O’Malley achieved a significant victory by winning a series of future gas tax hikes in the last legislative session. But the added revenues will be spread out across a number of transportation priorities, including the Purple Line proposed for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Kay’s MTA team is also responsible for designing the $2.2 billion Purple Line connecting Bethesda with New Carrollton, which will serve as a transit “Beltway” for riders of the Washington Metro heavy-rail system.

Both the Red and Purple lines have completed 20% of their design work and have successfully passed their environmental impact reviews. Both will inevitably compete for federal (as well as state) funds under the MTA’s timetable of getting construction underway on both lines by late 2014 or 2015.

In short, Baltimore’s costliest infrastructure project is getting close to breaking ground – and yet is far away from securing the actual dollars to make it a reality.

Most Popular