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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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Below is the full text of an article I wrote to the Baltimore Sun about Oriole Park at Camden Yards. For some context, I recommend taking a look at the original article that this post counters.

Blaming Camden Yards for unfulfilled promises of economic development is roughly equivalent to blaming a building when the architect is at fault. The Orioles didn’t make promises to turn the City around; they simply agreed to play 81 games a year in Baltimore. In that sense, Camden Yards has done everything it was supposed to do and more. For those who take issue with promises made 20 years ago and not kept, perhaps writing a letter to Mr. Schmoke would be a more appropriate outlet for your frustrations.

As for the comparison between Baltimore and Boston, why not just compare a banana and an apple? Yes, they are cities of comparable size, but the structural and institutional differences are what really spoil the comparison. The Boston area, unlike Baltimore, has several built in job creators. For one, it’s a state capital and might as well be the capital of New England. It’s also home to several of the U.S.’ most prestigious and well-funded universities which are economic development engines in their own right. If the Baltimore area were home to 3 or 4 Hopkins Universities and had 4 subway lines bringing workers downtown, perhaps it would be a more apt comparison. As it stands, however, Baltimore probably has more in common with Pittsburgh or Cleveland than it does with Boston. It’s pretty safe to assume that no city or state wants to publicly finance a Major League Baseball stadium but cities that have been losing population often see having a professional sports team as a sure-fire way to keep people coming downtown. And, for the most part, it works.

Take Camden Yards as an example. Since 1992, its inaugural year, the stadium has brought over 55 million people into downtown Baltimore. By the numbers, if you assume that each of those fans spent just $25 while in Baltimore, which is probably a huge underestimate, the state has earned almost $84 million in sales tax revenue and that figure does not include additional parking and alcohol taxes. The stadium only cost $110 million to build, about $2 for each visitor.

As any Orioles fan can tell you, many in attendance at Camden Yards come from out of state. Despite being annoying at the game, those tourists bring money into Maryland. When you consider the hotels out-of-towners stay at, the gas they buy, the flights they take to get here and the parking they pay for, I would imagine that the taxpayers just about break even or they will pretty soon. And it’s only been 20 years.

Eutaw Street - the main concourse at Camden Yards

The great thing about a classic stadium like Camden Yards is that it rarely needs renovation. The Baltimore Convention Center, however, completed its last renovation in 1997, more recently than Camden Yards was built, and it’s already considered uncompetitive. Compare the two facilities and you’ll see that, in 2010, only 389,000 people attended conventions at the Baltimore Convention Center. That same year, Camden Yards drew a total crowd of 1.7 million. Meanwhile, the Convention Center’s total cost was about $202 million and that doesn’t include the incredibly attractive Hilton across the street that taxpayer money paid for. If you tack on the $300 million in bonds for the hotel, you have a facility that draws 1.3 million fewer visitors to Baltimore each year and cost 5 times as much to build.

The Hilton Convention Center Hotel

With all this talk of economic value and money, it’s easy to lose sight of the intangible benefits a ballpark like Camden Yards gives to a city like Baltimore. Camden Yards has been a source of civic pride for 20 years now and will continue to be for years to come. So consider it a long-term investment in Baltimore because great stadiums don’t need to be replaced: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have been in operation since 1916 and 1912, respectively. Both stadiums are great places to watch the game and destinations for fans across the country. Camden Yards, though it’s only 20 years old, is already a classic. There are a lot of things that could be better in Baltimore but it’s hard to imagine a better ballpark.

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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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A Brief Update:

Constellation Energy, Baltimore’s only remaining Fortune 500 Company is going to merge with Exelon, a Chicago-based energy company. The merger will likely eliminate around 600 jobs, most of them in Baltimore. Shortly after the  merger was made pubic, Exelon announced that it would be seeking new office space, abandoning its current home at 750 East Pratt Street.

Constellation Energy's current headquarters at 750 E Pratt Street

In this same statement, Exelon also affirmed its commitment to keep what was left of its Baltimore employee base in Baltimore. Several sites and proposals were considered but ultimately the soon-to-be energy giant chose Harbor Point, a 27 acre parcel just southeast of Downtown Baltimore.

Exelon’s decision to develop Harbor Point ruffled some feathers in the business community. Those upset contend that the construction of a new building will saturate a downtown office space market where vacancy rates are already high, surpassing 16% as of October, 2011.

A map showing the location of Harbor Point in relation to the Inner Harbor and Downtown Baltimore. Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

A Question of Perspective:

Others worried that moving hundreds of employees farther from the traditional downtown core, centered at Pratt and Light Streets, would further destabilize and decentralize the business district. The trend of development toward Baltimore’s eastern waterfront has been happening for quite some time now. Exelon’s decision should have come as no surprise. Over the past five years, Harbor East has made itself into a destination in its own right, attracting high-end shops and restaurants and a clientele to match. The question is: why are downtown business leaders more upset by the location of a new office building than they are by the jobs that will be lost as a result of the merger? Why can’t what’s good for Harbor East be good for Baltimore’s downtown too? If we just moved the imaginary line between “Downtown” and Harbor East from President Street to Caroline Street, there might be less animosity and more cooperation in the business community.

A map of Downtown Baltimore with the Downtown Partnership's coverage area outlined in green and Harbor East shown in light blue at the bottom right

Changing with the Times:

As cities grow, so must their cores, either out or up. It’s a fact of urban development. The cities, districts and buildings that grow most are able to adapt to changing market conditions and make themselves more desirable to people and businesses. An excellent example can be found right here in Baltimore. In 2009, when Legg Mason left their headquarters at 100 Light Street, the owners of the building took the opportunity to redesign the plaza surrounding the building and renovate the interior. That investment helped attract Transamerica which now leases about 140,00 square feet, or 10 floors, and has its name on the tower at 100 Light Street.

The redesigned plaza in front of 100 Light Street

Baltimore’s traditional downtown hasn’t had many buildings follow the example set by 100 Light Street. The results of this lack of investment can be seen in the eastward trend of development in the past several years. Below is a series of aerial photos which illustrates this trend.

An aerial view of Harbor East in 1994

An aerial view of Harbor East in 2002

An aerial view of Harbor East in 2009, with all of the buildings either under construction or completed.

Show me the Money:

Harbor Point is in a Maryland Enterprise Zone. State approved enterprise zones are designed to bring development to areas that otherwise would not attract it. As a result, the benefits associated with building in an enterprise zone are pretty generous: the business owner is entitled to an eighty percent tax break for the first five years with the rate diminishing by ten percent in each successive year for five more years. The result is an estimated $64.5 Million in savings for Exelon due to the state enterprise zone. Tack that onto the $155 Million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF)  the City has to spend to get Harbor Point ready for development, build open space and add roads to the site. That’s quite a bill. Indeed, the amount of money being spent to develop a parcel that should sell itself has many Baltimoreans up in arms, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe that no one saw this coming. When development trends showed that Harbor East and Harbor Point were becoming desirable locations for development, why didn’t anyone remove these areas from the list of state approved enterprise zones? This particular lapse in oversight is a costly one.

Raise Your Hand if You’re Surprised:

Given what development trends in Baltimore have looked like over the past ten years and the amount Exelon stands to save on taxes, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that Exelon selected Harbor Point. Even without the development trends and the tax-related savings, Harbor Point is still an amazing site. It’s surrounded on three sides by water and it sits between Fells Point and Harbor Point two of Baltimore’s most desirable locations. The site is also a whopping 27 acres, allowing Exelon’s imagination to run wild. Some criticize how Exelon selected its site, charging they sought features one would expect in a suburban location including ample parking spaces and open space. These criticisms shouldn’t hold much water as they are features every good developer wants.

The fact of the matter is, Exelon got a great deal on a great site. City and State government reacted too slowly to real estate trends to take advantage of Harbor Point as a source of tax revenue. The real question is, has our government learned from this mistake? The State and especially the City cannot afford to make such huge concessions to developers.

Something to Look Forward to:

A large part of Baltimore’s transformation has been taking industrial sites and making them into developable land for retail and office space. Until 1985, Harbor Point was the site of Allied Chemical’s chromium factory.

A view of Harbor Point when Allied Chemical still had a factory on the site.

In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a cleanup of the site which resulted in a “cap” being placed over the top of the site, preventing rain water from leaching chromium into the harbor.

What Harbor Point looks like today, as seen from the top of the Legg Mason building in Harbor East

When completed, the site is expected to include about 1 Million square feet of office space, 150,00 sq. ft. of retail, 600 residences, 250 hotel rooms and 3,000 parking spaces. Exelon’s building is expected to earn a LEED Platinum rating, the highest available award for green building. The site will also include 11 acres of open space.

An artist's rendering of the proposed development at Harbor Point, courtesy of Harbor Point Development

The site plan for Harbor Point, including the waterfront promenade and a lacrosse field

Despite the lost tax revenue, in the long run this project should be good for the City. As Harbor Point is the last developable waterfront property, investment should shift back North and West toward the City’s core, which will strengthen as a result. Short term benefits include thousands more people coming “downtown” every day to work, eat and, hopefully, live.

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