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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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The Charm City Circulator‘s ridership numbers have been increasing steadily for over a year. This should come as no surprise to those who live or work near its routes. What may come as a surprise is that Baltimore City is actually responsible for a successful transit program. As of March 2012, the Circulator transported about 350,000 per month. This may not seem like a huge number of riders but consider that in March of 2011, the Circulator transported only 188,000 riders per month. Transit use is increasing rapidly across the U.S., but very few municipalities can boast an 83% ridership increase over the course of one year*.

Total Monthly Ridership on the Charm City Circulator

There are many causes of this downtown Baltimore transit renaissance. First, the bus service is free, eliminating almost every disincentive to ride. Second, the service is local, not regional, making it highly functional for people making short trips within the Circulators target area. Third, two of the three routes serve the 401, the City’s central business district, currently the fastest growing in terms of residential population. Perhaps most importantly, the Circulator serves people going to and from jobs, stores, businesses, homes and apartments, not parking lots in the suburbs. Every Circulator stop serves a neighborhood, not a park and ride. And, the Circulator is expanding, serving even more neighborhoods and job centers, including Fells Point and Hopkins Hospital. As a result, one can expect ridership to increase even more. In fact, since the Green Route, the newest Circulator route, first began operating in November of 2011, overall circulator ridership has been increasing even more rapidly.

A map showing all three Charm City Circulator Routes

The Circulator is also a small operation. The Circulator is able to run efficiently because its routes are short and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation isn’t trying to do too much. Fewer routes in this case means higher performing routes and, in this case, consistent growth in ridership numbers. It also means that the Baltimore City Department of Transportation can spend time finding funding sources to add new routes to the Circulator. The Banner Route, for example, was made possible, in part, by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, even if the MTA were able to get such a grant from the Federal Government, $1.6 million would probably not be enough money to fund a new route.

Courtesy of Baltimore City, a map showing the new Banner Route in blue.

The Circulator isn’t just one new bus route though: it has grown from one route carrying about 1,200 passengers a day into a three-route system carrying over 11,000 in under two and a half years. With the opening of the Banner route this June, expect ridership to continue to grow rapidly as residents, commuters and tourists gain access to Locust Point and Fort McHenry.

Even though the Circulator doesn’t cover nearly the area that the MTA does, its ability to make the most of very little is impressive and begs the question: isn’t it time Baltimore had its own centralized transit authority? Baltimore is currently the largest city in the U.S to have a state-run transit agency. The effects of the bureaucracy and thinly spread resources can be seen in the piece-meal way that Baltimore’s transit system was built, in the lack of comprehensive planning and in the lack of regional cohesion around a transit-oriented vision.

A map of the MARC Train system: The State of Maryland currently operates MARC Service in 12 counties within Maryland and 2 separate jurisdictions including the District of Columbia and West Virginia. MARC, similar to NJ Transit, is a perfect example of the sort of regional transportation resource a state should provide. The Light Rail, however, which operates much more locally within Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties and Baltimore City serves a different purpose entirely, one more consistent with the goals of a regional transit authority.

*If anyone is interested in taking a look at the data set or the data sources, as always, feel free to comment below and I’ll put it up.

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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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An Entirely New Route:

Great News! The Charm City Circulator is expanding its service. In addition to the three existing routes, there will now be an additional route serving Locust Point. The new route, the Banner Route, will provide free access to attractions such as The Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, The American Visionary Art Museum, The Baltimore Museum of Industry and Fort McHenry.

Courtesy of Baltimore City, a map showing the new Banner Route in blue.

The new route will celebrate the bicentennial of the successful defense of Baltimore’s Harbor from the British during the War of 1812. Apart from providing access to tourist attractions, the route will also link the downtown job market and shops along Fort Avenue to several thousand neighborhood residents. The route could, however, take greater advantage of the urban fabric: it currently follows the waterfront rather than serving the busy Fort Avenue corridor. The route also misses the opportunity to connect with the circulator’s free water taxi route connecting Fells Point and Canton.

A map showing the location of Tide Point and the water taxi connections available

Unfortunately, the Under Armour Headquarters at Tide Point, home to around 1,200 employees, will not be directly served by the circulator’s new route.

A view of Tide Point, the former factory for Tide and current headquarters of Under Armour, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

Despite the lack of direct connectivity and apparent missed opportunities, the new route will still make many businesses walkable. As the primary purpose the Banner Route is to provide access to Fort McHenry, the route follows the quickest route to its end point. However, there is always the possibility that if the route can get more funding, it will be adjusted to include larger sections of Fort Avenue or to connect with Tide Point.

An Expanded Purple Route:

In the State of the City address, delivered on February 13th 2012, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made an exciting proposal to expand upon the existing Purple Route. She proposed extending service up to Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Campus at 33rd Street.

The Purple Route currently connects Penn Station, Mt. Vernon, Downtown Baltimore and Federal Hill

This proposal fits in perfectly with one of Bmore Urban’s core goals for the City: make its academic institutions, particularly Colleges and Universities, more accessible to restaurants, shopping and nightlife. It would be a great way to get the students currently living in the City to take greater advantage of the City’s resources, provide a boost to local businesses and, hopefully, get people new to Baltimore out to experience all the City has to offer. Johns Hopkins already has a shuttle running between its Homewood Campus, Peabody Conservatory and East Baltimore Campuses. However, the circulator would offer additional connections south of Centre Street, where the Johns Hopskins Shuttle turns east, and expand the options available to students leaving campus for extracurricular reasons.

A map of route that the Johns Hopkins' Shuttle takes: at the point where the shuttle's route turns East, the Purple Route would continue south

Expanded service would also make the incredible art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art more accesible to tourists and City residents alike.

The BMA boasts 90,000 works of art including the "largest holding of works by Henri Matisse in the world, as well as masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh". The museum is also free to visitors.

Access to the fresh food available year round at the Waverly Farmers Market is also especially important due to the large number City residents without it. The Farmers Market takes place on Saturday mornings and would be only a few blocks away from the Purple Route.

Fresh food being sold at the Waverly Farmers Market

Charles Village, the neighborhood east and south of Hopkins’ Homewood Campus, is also home a to a sizable population unaffiliated with Hopkins. Providing access to this fairly densely populated corridor could help bring even more people and jobs downtown.

Looking North from the corner of St. Paul Street and 31st Street: St. Paul Street is the main commercial street in Charles Village and southbound thoroughfare connecting the area to Downtown Baltimore.

The Circulator already does a great job moving people around. As of January 2012, the three existing lines of the Circulator carried almost 10,000 people a day, removing thousands of automotive trips from local roads. With expanded service, that number will likely rise by several thousand riders a day.

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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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