Archive for March, 2012

Camden Yards Was Worth It

A view from the upper deck on the third base side at Camden Yards

My response to an article that appeared recently in the Baltimore Sun that called into question whether Camden Yards was was a good investment for Maryland. The response that appears in the Sun is a shortened version. The full text can be found here.


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Really interesting piece on the different design and fundraising approaches that New York and Chicago take.

City Parks Blog

New York and Chicago are often pitted as rivals with regards to parkland acreage (38,060 acres vs. 11,959 acres, equating to 4.5 and 4.2 acres per 1,000 residents, respectively), and this month was no different.  Last week both cities released designs to the community for the next latest and greatest thing in the park world — elevated rail trails — and the designs couldn’t be more different.

New York’s High Line has been generating buzz since before its 2009 opening, and the overwhelming success of its first two phases (there were 3,000,000 visitors in 2011) have kept the public anxiously awaiting the last and final phase.  Held up by land ownership issues and fundraising nightmares in a struggling economy, Friends of the High Line scored an amazing win last fall with a record-setting $20 million donation from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, the single largest donation ever made to a New…

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We live in a competitive country, states compete with their neighbors for business and cities compete with their suburbs for residents. The stakes are particularly high for cities, like Baltimore, that are trying to regain some of their lost population. The latest proposal by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to make Baltimore City , a jurisdiction that is far from a true competitor, more competitive in the region; Baltimore’s property tax rate is currently more than twice that of the counties surrounding it. The cut, which would be implemented in stages over the course of several years, could provide a tax break from a rate of 2.2% to 2.0% by 2020. This cut would save a homeowner whose house is appraised at $200,000, $400: not small change. Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s proposal is modest compared to the proposals of some, which would slash the property tax by even more. The fact is, the City cannot afford to foot the bill for extreme tax cuts but, according to some, including the City’s largest developer, they are necessary to keep the City competitive.

The hope is that a lower property tax rate will encourage people to move into the City, bolstering the Mayor’s efforts to add 10,000 new families to the City. But do the ends justify the means? The loss in revenue due to the tax cut would have to be made up using funds drawn from the operation of a new slots parlor in Baltimore. Though Baltimore desperately needs new sources of revenue, this may not be the right source. Gambling has many opponents: family groups, religious groups and those of the opinion that gambling contributes to an increase in crime.

A rendering of the proposed casino which would be built on Russell Street near M&T Bank Stadium

The Mayor’s proposal does, however, include some wonderful provisions which will exempt vacant properties from any tax reductions and give preference to owner-occupied properties over rental properties. This is the right move; vacant properties cost the City money, stress its neighborhoods and inflate its crime rate.

Vacant Houses on North Avenue

Each of Baltimore’s 16,000 vacant buildings is estimated to cost the City $1500 a year making the total spent on vacant buildings about $24 million a year – and that figure does not include vacant buildings’ effects on quality of life. As a disincentive, the Mayor’s proposal has the owners of vacant properties continuing to pay the same tax rate in addition to the costs of vacant property ownership which can include fees of up to $900 per year. Ideally, the fees, taxes and lower property tax rate for homeowners will result in fewer vacant buildings and more residents in Baltimore City.

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There has been a common theme in the news recently: invest now, save later. There are two huge issues before Maryland’s legislature. One involves raising the gas tax; the other involves raising billions of dollars for school improvements and construction in Baltimore City. The common thread is the need now and the payoff later.

The Gas Tax:

There is a lot of opposition to the gas tax but there is also a demonstrated need for it: just last year, Maryland passed New York as the state with the highest average commute time– almost 32 minutes. The gas tax would pay for much needed improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. These projects would help to lower commute time and repair the State’s ailing infrastructure in other areas. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported that Maryland’s water systems (both drinking and wastewater) need $9.4 Billion in investment over the next 20 years. Water quality improvements are not just for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay, they will ensure Marylanders’ access to safe drinking water.

The ASCE also reported that in Maryland:

  • 29% of bridges are structurally deficient
  • 44% of Major Roads are in mediocre or poor condition and
  • 55% of Major Urban Highways are congested

Traffic on I-83 - lane closures caused by high water - a sign of things to come without investment in stormwater management and transportation infrastructure

Rebuilding Maryland’s infrastructure should be a high priority even for those who will pay more at the pump. Those same Marylanders who are opposed to a gas tax hike are likely the ones will suffer most from increased commute times as a result of inaction. The Baltimore Sun recently exposed the dangers of  allowing the State’s infrastructure to fall apart and the threat of such degradation on an already fragile economy.


A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would help Baltimore City reach its goal of raising $2.8 billion to put toward improving the City’s schools, many of which lack basics such as heating and cooling systems. Many in Maryland are not in favor of the bill including the Executive Director of the Public School Construction Program, David Lever. Mr. Lever’s criticism is that, if passed, this bill would grant the City a larger amount of money than other jurisdictions which he insists is not “fair”. However, a quick look at the map below will show that Baltimore’s request isn’t about fairness, it’s about need.

A map showing the conditions of various Baltimore City Schools

The allocation of money to Baltimore City over other jurisdictions may not be “fair” from a statewide perspective but it is smart: if the State does not act now, the $2.8 billion will likely grow to 3, 4 or even 5 billion dollars.In other words, the State’s unwillingness to act now will cost taxpayers later. In fact, a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun suggests “that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, society saves as much as $16, offsetting the cost of remedial education, teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency and incarceration.” That kind of return is one most investors can only dream of and hardly one the State can afford to pass up.

Though investment in our schools may be fiscally responsible, it isn’t about the money. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, understands that and has proposed a $300 million bond to the Baltimore City Council which would be paid for by an increased bottle tax. Baltimore’s kids can’t wait; according to a report issued by Baltimore City Public Schools, students are being taught in schools built an average of 40 years ago, the highest average age of school buildings in the State. Meanwhile, the $32 million made available by the State to the City for school construction in 2012 is barely enough to make the repairs necessary to keep old schools operational. Baltimore’s public schools need a big investment now in order to turn them into great places to learn.

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Baltimore cyclists can breathe a little easier as both State and Federal governments have expressed interest in supporting them. The U.S. Senate is set to vote on a bill which will include funds earmarked for bicycle trails, scenic pull-offs and street beautification projects. At the state level, Governor O’Malley has announced several projects in the Baltimore area that will be receiving funding:

  1. The design of a 1.4-mile extension of the BWI Trail to the Nursery Road Light Rail Station

    A map of the BWI trail which will be extended north to the Nursery Road Light Rail Station.

  2. High-density covered bike racks at Penn and Camden stations

    Camden Station in Downtown Baltimore

  3. An on-road bike route linking the Gwynns Falls Trail to Catonsville

    A map of the Gywnns Falls Trail which will be extended west to Catonsville

  4. An on-road bike route linking the Mt. Washington light rail to Belvedere Square
  5. A signed route and bike racks from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to the Halethorpe MARC station

Many of the projects receiving funding aim to make transit more bike-accessible and, in effect, would make the City’s often disconnected neighborhoods more accessible to one another. The fact that Maryland is investing money in Bicycle infrastructure is great news, especially in Baltimore, where a number of well-designed bikeways could make a huge difference. In fact, evidence suggests that bike-able cities can experience drops in crime. Lower crime numbers and a more bike-able, transit accessible city could be in Baltimore’s future.

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How could late night and weekend MARC service benefit Baltimore?

The MARC train at Penn Station in Baltimore

Baltimore is home to a growing population of commuters who enjoy city life but either can’t afford or don’t care for Washington, DC. MARC train users deal with cramped cars, infrequent off-peak service and frequent delays. The lack of late night and weekend service adds to the list of frustrations and people quickly rule out Baltimore as somewhere with easy access to Washington. Expanded MARC train service could change that perception. In fact, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and with local leaders are proposing expanded service for that reason. If a 40-60 minute train ride could connect Baltimore and its suburbs to the nation’s capital at almost any time, perhaps Baltimore could more easily market itself and maybe Transit Oriented Development would be able to compete more easily with traditional development.

A rendering of one of the buildings at Odenton Town Square, a Transit Oriented Development project consisting of over 1,500 residential units, 60,000 square feet of retail space and thousands of parking spaces all designed to make transit more accessible.

(Quick note: I am not in favor of making Baltimore a bedroom community for Washington, DC.)

It’s time for the MARC system to better serve Maryland’s cities and towns, especially Baltimore, and not simply cater to the Washington job market. Under the current system, Maryland’s taxpayers are footing the bill for a system designed to meet the needs of another jurisdiction.

A map of the MARC system

Does that mean MARC trains should not connect to Washington? Absolutely not; it simply means that MARC trains should provide as much, if not more, access to destinations in Maryland as they do to Washington. Providing night and weekend MARC service would be a step in the right direction.

Expanded service would also change Washington’s relationship with Baltimore and much of central Maryland drastically. If Baltimore were accessible on nights and weekends it would become more of a destination, a place to visit, go out to eat, check out a museum and, ideally, live. The best part about expanding MARC service: it could be done without additional infrastructure making it a relatively inexpensive way to make the Baltimore region more transit accessible.

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