Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Could Rail Transit in Columbia Be Closer Than We Think?

This post is one of those rare opportunities in which the content is relevant to both blogs. As a result it will appear on both blogs. With that being said, I ask you this question; Could Rail Transit in Columbia Be Closer Than We Think? Short answer; Yes. Relatively short answer; yes but nobody knows it. Long answer; yes but nobody knows so I'm going to explain how it can happen.   
The redevelopment of Columbia Town Center has slowed considerably due to the recession but in 2012 plans have begun to pick up steam again and in 2013 construction has begun and this year construction has continued as well as new plans being introduced. Part of the Master Plan for Columbia Town Center includes a Rail Transit Stop that will link Columbia to Baltimore. This same stop could also eventually link to the DC Metro for a truly regional comprehensive Rail Transit System. 
Everybody says this is way off in the future but in order to keep producing posts for this blog, I spend my days looking at maps any and all types ideas. In doing so I found a way that can link Columbia to Baltimore relatively easily and by using mostly existing tracks it will be much cheaper than most other projects coming down the pipeline.
In order to make this appear feasible we must first look at what's already there. Right now we have the Central Light Rail Line. In the Baltimore Regional Rail Transit Plan the Central Light Rail Line will break into two separate lines; The Blue Line and the Yellow Line. The Blue Line is already built to what is proposed in the Regional Rail Plan going from Hunt Valley to Cromwell Station between in Ferndale/Northern Glen Burnie (although my goal is to extend it to Annapolis) Then there's the Yellow Line, when completed it will share some track space with the Blue Line as already but when completed it will go from Towson to Columbia Town Center. 
To break up the two lines and "birth" the Yellow Line, all that would have to be done is to change the maps. If one is to ride the Central Light Rail Line (Blue Line) they will no longer have the spurs going to Penn Station or BWI Airport. The Yellow Line in its infancy will be those spurs starting at the Airport. joining the Blue Line for the vast majority of its length until it's expanded and then ending at Penn Station. Eventually the Yellow Line will get to Penn Station by way of Charles Center, Mercy Hospital, and Mount Vernon but that's way in the future.
Now back to Columbia, the Yellow Line is the Line that is to be extended to Columbia. Its southern end is at the Airport. Therefore we have to find a way to connect Columbia to the Airport. Before the Yellow Line (as I will be calling it from now on) turns into the Airport it runs parallel to Aviation Boulevard (MD 170) it will roughly continue to do so intersecting the MARC Penn Line at the BWI Amtrak Station. It will then travel through land that is largely undeveloped and is being banked for the future BWI "Aerotropolis. In Hanover at the Howard/Anne Arundel County line, the line will join the MARC Camden Line.
When funding more funding is in place the Yellow Line will continue on its own southbound with stops at the Baltimore Commons Business Park and Arundel Mills Mall/Maryland Live Casino which is one of Maryland's fastest growing areas. After leaving Arundel Mills it will meet the MARC Camden Line at the Dorsey MARC Station. Again, this won't be right away.
Once the Yellow Line joins the MARC Camden Line it will share tracks until there's a westward split between the Jessup and Savage MARC Stations. This leads into a largely industrial part of Savage and Jessup and skirts Guilford, an out-parcel of Columbia, This spur of train tracks ends in between Guilford, and the Columbia Villages of Owen Brown and King's Contrivance. Given how there's no real funding in place for tunneled rail transit this is the end of the line for now. It does give Rail Transit access to Columbia, not Columbia Town Center just yet. 
When the time comes for a Town Center expansion I would have it go up Broken Land Parkway and have it go through Oakland Mills for a stop at its Village Center (pictured above)as the Multi-Modal pathway proposed will make for a great right of way. This will also spur much needed reinvestment and redevelopment for the Village of Oakland Mills. Using this same Multi-Modal path, the Yellow Line will cross Rote 29 and will reach its ultimate southbound destination; Columbia Town Center.
Although I have started the route to Columbia by hardly laying any track down, when the route goes all the way to Town Center via Arundel Mills, there will have to be new tracks laid down, dug up and tunneled. However this "el cheapo route" will surely help the Mastered Planned vision of the Yellow Line come to fruition and that Rail Transit in Columbia actually is a lot closer than we think.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Lexington Market: The Block Long Underground Conveyor Belt

When making a comprehensive transit plan, different lines have to cross paths in order for Riders to get anywhere and everywhere in the City and the inner ring of the County. These stations known as "transit hubs" make it possible for somebody who lives in Hunt Valley and works at Johns Hopkins Hospital to ride Rail Transit to and from work.
The only problem is, that fictional person can't get there because the transit hub connecting these two existing lines also isn't there. Poor planning? Yes, but a soon to be abandoned CSX tunnel and my idea for a "block long conveyor belt" might make for a true transit hub here in Baltimore.
Right now, with only the Light Rail(Blue Line) and the Subway (Green Line) there is only one possible place for a transit hub; Lexington Market. Unfortunately, whoever was given the task to plan the route for the Light Rail (it's newer than the Subway) nobody thought that locating a Light Rail Station one block west where the Subway Station is could in fact increase ridership and make rail transit viable.
Several years ago I attempted to address this by relocating the Light Rail, tracks under Eutaw St. This post was not met with warm fanfare to say the least. I don't consider that a bad thing because posts like that force me to look for a new way to address the problem the bad post was attempting to solve.
It was at this time that I began reading about the CSX fire in 2001. The tunnel that runs under Howard St. from Camden Yards to the JFX was deemed unsafe for cargo trains and it would have to be vacated by the CSX and a new route would have to be thought up. Now where does that leave the vacated Howard St. Tunnel? Many transit advocates not unlike myself have called for tunneling the Howard St. Light Rail underneath where it currently sits. This will free up precious lanes on Howard St. and should generate more private money to invest in the Howard St. Corridor. 
Although this endeavor wouldn't be nearly as costly as other rail line building/expansion projects it would still cost a pretty penny to build escalators and elevators down and making platforms underground for passengers to board and de-baord the trains. The physical tunneling which carries the heftiest price tag would already be done. I say lets get this started full speed ahead!
With the Howard St. Light Rail Tunneled it would be easier to think about making Lexington Market a transit hub. We wouldn't relocate any stations or anything like that but option to switch lines underground without leaving the station (s) possible. If you're on Howard St. and you go down an escalator you could board from that escalator not only the Light Rail but the Subway. Likewise, if you're going down an escalator from Eutaw St. you could board not only the Subway but the Light Rail as well.
With a plan like that the only tunneling needed to make that happen would be the block of Lexington St. between Howard and Eutaw St. True, this would be an expensive endeavor but I think bundling it with the Red Line construction costs would help us see the money sooner rather than later. Personally I would like to see a Lexington Market Stop on the Red Line as well. You can find that on one of my many posts that blasts Red Line Option 4C and provides an alternative that serves Downtown, the Inner Harbor and Southeast Baltimore much better than option 4C.
Now back to Lexington Market. It's agreed that tunneling the Howard St. Light Rail and creating a block long tunnel between the two or perhaps three stations would create a transit hub unlike that which Baltimore has never seen in modern day history. The question remains, aren't people still walking that same block between Howard and Eutaw St.? Other than not having to brave the elements, the walk is the same right? That's why I have decided to include conveyor belts that literally give you a ride for that block in between the two stations. Just stand and enjoy the ride and next thing you know you're at the other end of the station. Now are you convinced this is a transit hub? I thought so.
When planning the Light Rail and the Subway there was obvious disconnect when linking the two together. Lexington Market is the shortest distance between the two. In order for Baltimore's Rail Transit to grow and increase ridership, there must at least one hub that connects the two. By tunneling the Howard St. Light Rail and making the block long tunnel under Lexington St., a small move in the grand scheme of things, this one tunnel will do what has yet to be done in modern day Baltimore; create a transit hub.

Friday, March 7, 2014

York Road TAP: No Yellow Line?

I just got finished reading the new Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) for York Road. I thought that it provides a good plan to help the York Road Corridor move forward and recognize its assets while looking at opportunities for improvements. However one key component is missing; the Yellow Line. I'm aware that the Yellow Line is something that if built won't be built anytime soon. I have come to terms with that fact however when a TAP or a Master Plan comes down the pipeline that doesn't at least mention some sort of plan for it, that's a pill I can't swallow.
The York Road TAP does in fact mention transit. There are proposed "shuttle bugs" that connect the York Road Neighborhoods to the existing Light Rail Line as well as the numerous Colleges and Universities to the west such as Johns Hopkins, Loyola, and Notre Dame. The fact that something like this is mentioned when York Road is directly in the path of the Yellow Line and that fact is acknowledged, it shows in my opinion how shallow the York Road TAP plan actually is.  
If Rail Transit makes the headlines these days it's concerning the Red Line. The City and State are trying despite our economic woes to secure funding for planning and perhaps construction. The Red Line is not the only Rail Line in Baltimore that's included in the 2002 Baltimore Regional Rail Plan. Another line is the rarely mentioned Yellow Line. If built in full, the Yellow Line would go from Towson to Columbia Town Center. This is an ambitious project but neglecting to talk about it in Master Plans like the York Road TAP it will die.
Now why should the York Road TAP include the Yellow Line? That's an easy one, the proposed Northern Route of the Yellow Line IS York Road. So why wouldn't land for stations be Master Planned into something like the York Road TAP? One thing I neglected to mention is that the York Road TAP extends into the County and effects the southern edge of Towson. The fact that this plan includes portions of both the City and County and mention is made perplexes me even more.
With or without the Yellow Line York Road is making and will continue to make improvements. Belevedere Square and the Senator Theater have made huge investments in the Community as have streetscape enhancements along the northern edge of the City and the Southern edge of the County. Further into the City, the Station North Arts & Entertainment District has seen Artists moving into and rehabbing vacant homes in the Waverly and Barclay Neighborhoods. In Neighborhoods like Pen Lucy and Wilson Park, once one of Baltimore's highest violent crime zones, the violent crime rate has dropped and the quality of life has gone up. Indeed, new homes are popping up in vacant lots in the Pen Lucy Neighborhood.
There are still sections of the York Road Corridor that are in rough shape and would make great opportunities for reinvestment and redevelopment. This includes the commercial stretches of Greenmount Avenue in the Waverly/Barclay area that have high vacancy rates and low quality merchants. The influx of an Arts Community may help bring Co-op Businesses like a used Book Store and Art Supply Stores to the area. This will also boost the already successful Waverly Farmers Market. Personally I think that keeping the Yellow Line in the dialogue in these areas where additional heavy reinvestment and redevelopment is needed will help steer private dollars there because high density Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is highly profitable.
So how exactly do you "Master Plan" something like the Yellow line into something like the York Road TAP? Well lets start with stations. When looking at opportunities for reinvestment and redevelopment around land for stations two things need to happen; first leaving land open for the escalators and elevators that lead to the stations underground. Yes, this will be tunneled Light Rail. Second, leaving about a half acre of land for a surface parking lot. I have never advocated for surface parking lots in my life but I have a plan. If/when the Yellow Line does come to fruition, this surface lot can be built into a parking garage. Aren't parking garages not visually appealing? Nope, they are not but a high density mixed use TOD building can be visually appealing and building such buildings around parking garages has been a great way to mask them.
I like to take a timeout to reveal a truly genius example of Master Planning for the future. Although this "future plan" hasn't come to fruition I still applaud its planners and designers. The example I'm speaking of is the Charles Center Metro Station (pictured above.) What's so great about the Charles Center Metro Station? It's actually built for two lines to cross it! That's right it's meant to be a transit hub. When planning for this station all the back in the 1980s, Planners wanted a north south line to cross this station, so in a moment of pure genius, they built the Station with the intent of a second line eventually crossing it. Today there is no second line. This is the type of forward that I believe to lacking when planning the York Road TAP. Ironically the line that's proposed to cross the Charles Center Metro is also the Yellow Line further south Downtown on its way to York Road.
When the Yellow Line travels north to York Road/Greenmount Avenue, where are these stations that the 2002 Baltimore Regional Rail Plan and I are proposing? Sadly the plan doesn't have the exact locations but I will tell you where mine are. After shifting eastward from Penn Station, the Yellow Line will meet North Avenue at Greenmount for a "Station North" Station. At this point the Yellow Line will travel up the Greenmount Avenue/York Road corridor to 25th St. for a Barclay Station the to 33rd St. for a Waverly Station, then to 39th St. for a Pen Lucy Station, then up to Colspring Lane for a Govans Station, then finally for its final stop in the City to Northern Parkway for a Belvedere Square Station.
The Yellow Line will then travel into the County for a Rodger's Forge Station at Dumbarton Road then over to Cross Campus Drive where four major Employers/Institutions  will now have access to the Rail System; Towson University, GBMC, St. Joesph Hospital and Shepard Pratt. With all of these large Institutions having access to Rail Transit, York Road's gridlock will surely decrease. The final stop on the Yellow Line will be Townsontown Centre where TOD is already being built at break neck speed.

The York Road TAP was and is meant to provide a long range plan for the York Road Corridor. Although it does this, it fails to mention perhaps the most crucial part of what should be mentioned. Regardless of how far fetched or in the future the Yellow Line may seem, if it isn't mentioned in plans like this, it will die. Do you want to be the ones responsible for killing it? I don't, that's why I'm writing about it in hopes of keeping it on the books.