Even in Buffalo, where transit planning was so poorly coordinated that the badly torn-up and disrupted downtown commercial district was labelled "Beirut" by the head of the transit authority in 1986, some development has nonetheless occurred around light rail (although, by most accounts, Buffalo's system is a white elephant, perpetually in danger of shutting down).
The positive impact of light rail on development should not be exaggerated. In no city has rail transit -- light or heavy -- staunched the movement of population and employment to suburban areas.
In metropolitan Portland, for example, despite the successful light rail line, more than two-thirds of office space built during the '80s was in the suburbs. Similar decentralization occurred in the Baltimore area, despite the completion of Metro, and will undoubtedly continue, light rail notwithstanding.
Moreover, transit-related development does not occur by itself. The "Field of Dreams" approach -- "if we build a system, developers will come" -- rarely works. By way of contrast, Portland's transit/development success seems to have resulted from an elaborate station-area planning program to promote development, a process that unfortunately was sidestepped as Baltimore moved rapidly from planning to implementation.
The record is very clear: Economic development benefits from light rail will only be realized in communities that support transit with complementary economic development policies. Such policies include public-private development around stations, zoning and investment incentives and additional public infrastructure investments.
Some cities are going even further, using rail transit as the linchpin of local reindustrialization. In Los Angeles, for example, the County Transportation Commission recently canceled an order for Japanese rail transit vehicles and voted to build its own $50 million factory to make the cars locally, with the hope of turning the city into the national center of a reinvigorated U.S. mass transit industry.
Similarly, Pittsburgh has attempted to forge a partnership with a German manufacturer of light rail vehicles to produce cars and help revive that city's manufacturing sector by creating a new local industry.
Baltimore, with its declining industrial base, might well have used similar creativity in using light rail as a strategic opportunity for local reindustrialization. Despite this missed opportunity, Maryland planners do expect economic development benefits from light rail. MTA officials hope light rail will help unemployed Baltimore residents manage a "reverse commute" to jobs in growing suburban areas north and south of the city, especially when the system is extended to Hunt Valley and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In addition, light rail is expected to promote more efficient, compact patterns of development in suburban growth corridors.
And officials expect light rail to provide another boost to Baltimore's downtown renaissance, particularly as various forms of mass transit converge around the new ballpark, but also, they hope, along Howard Street. There, three light rail stops are located in the heart of Baltimore's traditional -- but currently flagging -- retail district.
Light rail will not remake Baltimore -- as if any one public investment, no matter how major, could do so. Moreover, despite the efficiency and speed with which the system was built, numerous opportunities to take full advantage of the potential economic development opportunities of light rail have already been missed.
Nevertheless, the new emphasis on mass transit in Baltimore offers exciting possibilities for future development. The potential for transit-related development projects still exists, and the overall productivity of the regional economy can only improve as commuting times are reduced, more efficient land use is encouraged and auto-related pollution declines. What remains to seen is whether leadership in the Baltimore region possesses the vision and vigor to take advantage of this opportunity.
Marc Levine is director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He recently completed study on the economic impact of light rail transit systems.