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Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

Good news for anyone who lives or works in South Baltimore: this coming Monday, June 4th, there will be two changes that will expand circulator service:

1.) The existing Purple Route will be extended about one quarter mile farther south to Fort Avenue. This long overdue connection will serve many of the smaller, local businesses that operate on and around Fort Avenue.

2.) The Banner Route begins service and, despite the contested path the Banner Route will take, there will only be about half a mile between the two routes that serve Fort avenue. Basically, no business on Fort Avenue will be more than one quarter of a mile from a Charm City Circulator Stop.

With the addition of the Banner Route and the extension of the purple route, the Circulator will actually begin to resemble its own small transit network.

The new Banner Route and the addition to the existing Purple Route figure to attract even more riders to Baltimore’s fledgling transit system. Even without any changes, ridership climbed again between March and April. In fact, as of April 18th, the Circulator celebrated its five millionth rider. The system notched its four millionth rider in mid-January. So, over the past three months, the Circulator has transported 1 million riders. Not too bad for a system paid for by a parking tax and some grant money.

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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.

Education:

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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What is the Jones Falls, an expressway or a stream?

Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun, a photo of traffic on the JFX

Courtesy of Urbanite Magazine, a photo of the Jones Falls

The answer probably depends on who you ask. Sadly, the Jones Falls has been branded as an expressway. We hear it every day on TV and radio traffic reports and it doesn’t help that over 100,000 vehicles and over 35,000 transit riders use the corridor it forms to get to work every day. In reality, the Jones Falls is not a thoroughfare, it’s a stream that runs from north to south through Baltimore meeting up with the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River or Inner Harbor at its mouth. The Jones Falls Watershed comprises 58 square miles of urban and suburban Baltimore.

The pink area on the map represents the Jones Falls watershed. The yellow area represents the Direct Harbor watershed and the blue section is the Gwynns Falls watershed.

A Little History

The ravine-like valley formed by the Jones Falls used to be a hub for mill activity. Industrial uses along the Jones Falls began disappearing when waterpower became a thing of the past.

A bird's eye view of Penn Station and the Jones Falls prior to the construction of I-83 - the bridge in the foreground is the St. Paul Street bridge.

It has since become a transit right of way that carries commuters into Baltimore via the Light Rail, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and the eponymous expressway. The Jones Falls Expressway, or JFX, was completed in the early 1960’s up to Guilford Avenue. The expressway follows the path of the Jones Falls for almost about 7 miles toward its southern end.

A view of the Jones Falls corridor from the St. Paul Street bridge after the construction of the JFX

The Human and Environmental Costs

The Jones Falls Trail, like the JFX, follows the stream and provides important recreational access for Baltimoreans living in the northern half of the city.

A map of the Jones Falls Trail with the portion yet to be built in purple

However, starting just south of Penn Station, there is almost no public access to and no visibility of the stream itself. This is perhaps one of the largest issues that results from having a highway that follows and, in some cases, covers the stream. A visit to a park or other area where one can connect with the environment and see the importance of the stream ought to be more of a possibility. Unfortunately, the Jones Falls ends unceremoniously as a spillway, essentially eliminating public access to the stream as it becomes a concrete trough, designed to carry water efficiently to its outlet at the Inner Harbor. Despite comprising a relatively small portion of its total watershed, these final miles are perhaps the most important.

Over the course of these two miles:

1.)  The Jones Falls runs either underneath highways and roads or out of sight and out of mind. Exposing the Jones Falls to the public in Downtown Baltimore could go a long way toward creating a greater respect for Baltimore’s waterways.

2.)  The population density increases fairly dramatically meaning a greater number of people have less access to the stream and may not be aware of the impact that littering and other forms of pollution have on the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.

3.)  The amount of pervious land such as parks, lawns and fields (anything not covered in concrete or asphalt) decreases which amplifies the effect that pollutants have as they cannot be absorbed by or filtered through the soil and go directly into Baltimore’s Waterways.

There are obviously more factors contributing to the overall pollution of the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay but a campaign to reconnect the Jones Falls to the downtown neighborhoods through which it runs could help turn this forgotten waterway into a cleaner one.

What’s Next?

The Jones Falls Expressway needs to be reinforced, rethought or torn down in the next ten years. The Infrastructurist, an infrastructure and urban design blog, ranked it as one of the most important highways to tear down. If the highway is to be removed, a new urban boulevard could solve a lot of problems that the elevated portion of the JFX has created.

What an urban boulevard might look like

There is a tremendous opportunity to reincorporate the Jones Falls itself into Baltimore’s urban fabric, connect formerly divided neighborhoods and add options for parkland and transit. An excellent design option that is truly ambitious and goes far above and beyond many other proposals can be found here.

A rendering of the proposed Jones Falls Boulevard including a riverfront promenade, tram line, bike lane and infill buildings

The entire proposal can be found on Envision Baltimore’s Blog. The proposal, by Marc Szarkowski, would promote access to the Jones Falls, provide for a bike-able corridor and a transit friendly one, presenting alternatives to automotive use. Though definitely far from a reality, this proposal would make central Baltimore into a much more beautiful urban environment.

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There are so many transit projects worthy of funding; not just in Baltimore, but around the country, municipalities are struggling to balance their budgets while some of the more basic needs such as access to reliable public transportation remain unmet. Below is a wish list of the top 5 transit and infrastructure projects Baltimore should work towards. This is not a comprehensive list, just a few suggestions.

1.)  A simple connection between the southbound Light Rail and Penn Station. It makes no sense that Penn Station wasn’t included on the original Light Rail line and why, when they added a Penn Station connection, they only added it for trains heading south out of the station. It’s past time this situation was rectified and travelers could connect directly to Penn Station from the North.

An image showing the one way connection between the Light Rail and Penn Station

2.)  The Red Line. While I don’t fully agree with the route, an east-west transit connection is sorely needed. In addition, there are some great opportunities to connect MARC commuter rail to the Red Line at two points along its path: West Baltimore and Hopkins’ Bayview Campus. The West Baltimore MARC station is an existing station and, under the current proposal, would be part of a larger redevelopment effort aimed at making the area transit accessible.

Courtesy of the Baltimore Department of Planning, this is a map of the area surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station. A connection between the Red Line and MARC would be part of a larger revitalization effort.

The Bayview stop would be a new stop and should help provide a transit anchor in that area. The area is currently without too much in the way of public transit despite the fact that the MARC Penn Line runs very close to Bayview.

An aerial view of Hopkins' Bayview Campus shows the MARC Penn Line running through the northernmost section of the screen without a station stop.

3.)  A new downtown transit hub: several sites could be used but the one that makes the most sense is the current location of the 1st Mariner Arena. As is noted in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun, the 1st Mariner site would sit at the intersection of the existing light rail line and the proposed Red Line. The site could play host to retail, apartments and offices. It could also serve regional bus operators such as Greyhound and potentially a MARC station if CSX should ever expand or sell its right of way to the Howard Street Tunnel. This project presents tremendous opportunity for an area that needs a little push through this recession. It should also be noted that the Lexington Market Metro and Charles Center Metro stops are only a few blocks away and an underground connection could be built to allow for transfer between all three transit lines. It should go without saying that this building should include a “fare only” area to allow for smooth transfers between MTA lines and prevent fare evasion. A connection between all transit lines would be a real boon to Baltimore.

A very rough sketch of the intersecting lines around 1st Mariner Arena

4.)  A pedestrian bridge connecting Rash Field and Federal Hill with Harbor East was proposed as part of the redevelopment of Rash Field, which has been planned for quite some time. The bridge would not only cut off a significant distance for pedestrians and cyclists trying to cross between sides of the harbor but could also be an iconic addition to the City’s skyline.

A rendering provided by the Greater Baltimore Committee of the proposal to add a pedestrian bridge connecting Federal Hill to Harbor East as part of the redevelopment of Rash Field

If Baltimore were a bit more ambitious and had a bit more vision, added width and carrying capacity could be included in the bridge design so that it would actually be able to hold MTA buses (and ONLY MTA buses) and potentially even a light rail (see item 5). Providing such a shortcut to mass transit users would allow the MTA to actually compete with and ideally beat out automotive use for short trips around Downtown Baltimore. There is one complication with such a bridge: it must be high enough to allow tall ships to pass through for infrequent albeit important visits to the Inner Harbor. As a  potential solution to this problem: the Greater Baltimore Committee has proposed a bridge that would swing open like a gate- if the bridge were to be used for buses or rail transit as well, this option would likely be infeasible making a traditional drawbridge the more likely option.

5.) A new transit line. There are a few options here, none of them even close to being a reality. After all, this is a wish list. A new transit line should essentially parallel the current Light Rail line, connecting Penn Station with City Hall. Connections with the Shot Tower Metro and, eventually, the Red Line at Harbor East are also options. Connections to existing the Metro and proposed Red Line were the key criteria for determining this route. After all, connections are what make a transit system effective. Cost and ease of construction were also taken into account.

The purple, light blue and yellow lines represent several potential options for new transit corridors serving Downtown Baltimore. The red and dark blue lines show the red and light rail lines, respectively.

The purple, yellow and light blue lines each offer different advantages and disadvantages. The purple option is perhaps the most reasonable so its path is the dominant one, meaning the other lines should be assumed to continue upon its route except where they diverge. Each route would use the the right of way created by the southernmost, elevated portion of Interstate 83 (trains would travel under the highway which is currently used as municipal parking). The lines diverge toward the end of 83 where the median of President Street, the Red Line tunnel through downtown, the median of Light Street and Holliday Street represent different possible alignments. The yellow route would take advantage if item number 4 (see above), a pedestrian and transit bridge, is built. These routes are far from a reality but could be a part of the larger regional plan. In fact, the Baltimore Rail Plan calls for the construction of a similar line connecting Towson, Towson University, Hopkins Undergraduate Campus and Penn Station to Charles Center and the Inner Harbor and converging with the existing light rail at Camden Yards. It may seem a bit far off but the downtown, elevated portion of I83 is to be redesigned, reinforced or destroyed in 2020. Whatever happens to that section of highway, a transit line should be included.

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An article in this Sunday’s Baltimore Sun titled Baltimore’s port marks record year for vehicles in 2011 discussed the inherent advantages of the Port of Baltimore’s geographic location: Baltimore’s cozy harbor on the Patapsco River is farther inland than any other port in the Northeast. Historically, this made Baltimore’s harbor safe from storms but more recently it has given Baltimore’s port an indisputable advantage when it comes to shipping cargo to and receiving Cargo from the Midwest. But as a Rex Sherman, a research director for the American Association of Port Authorities, points out in the article: “‘Those terminals weren’t built overnight.’”

Indeed, there has been significant investment in Baltimore’s port infrastructure: cranes, dredging and expanded storage and processing facilities. This investment has paid off; the automotive import and export industry alone provides over 1,000 jobs. And, according to the State of Maryland, that’s only a small part of the over 50,000 total jobs and more than $3 Billion of annual revenue created by the Port.

For once, however, the jobs and the money are not the only focus of the article. In fact, it has undertones of an “if you build it, the will come” approach to investment. Baltimore needs a bit more of this attitude to build its infrastructure and, eventually, create the jobs that will keep the City growing.

The Port has shown private investors, the Federal Government and the State of Maryland that investment in Baltimore can be rewarded. In fact, a public private partnership is responsible for the construction of new berths and for millions of dollars in tax revenue. Perhaps the Port of Baltimore is one of the only infrastructure projects in which some are willing to invest in what many see as a lost and troubled Baltimore City. If that is the case, then let the money continue to roll in and create several thousand more jobs. However, repairing and adding capacity to one piece of infrastructure alone can’t fix Baltimore. The City needs to rebuild and, in some cases, rethink its infrastructural priorities in order to reverse decades of population decline; and it needs some help from investors to do it.

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