Transit plan off track with rusty rail vision

January 31, 2002|By Gerald P. Neily

THE MARYLAND Transit Administration's new regional rail transit system plan looks remarkably similar to the 1960s all-heavy-rail plan. It has been largely ignored for three decades by the same former MTA officials who are now serving as consultants on the new plan

There are only slight differences. The new plan extends to White Marsh, a hot growth center in the '80s that was down-zoned in the '90s. The White Marsh rail line is expected to take 26 minutes to downtown. The current express buses can make it in 24 minutes.

The new plan also includes Arundel Mills, the region's first new sprawl area of the century. The plan is to run transit trains downtown from there in 39 minutes, a trip that you can drive in less than 20 minutes.

But perhaps the MTA is making progress. Its previous foray into rail planning in the '90s, the central light rail project, was a 1930s-style trolley that is able to go from Hunt Valley to Camden Yards in 54 minutes. It replaced express buses that could do it in about 30 minutes.

Someone needs to tell these people that the region has changed, our travel needs have changed and transit technology had better change with it.

New 21st century strategies for bus rapid transit - including traffic signal pre-emption, electronically regulated automated vehicles and preferential expressway lanes that solo motorists can buy into - promise to be far more cost-effective and can be implemented much more quickly than most old-style rail transit projects.

The biggest trend that the MTA has largely ignored is the rapid unification of the Baltimore and Washington regions. The accelerating growth of this area has been totally left out of the plan.

A separate MTA group is studying magnetic levitation, or maglev, trains that would connect Baltimore and Washington in only 16 minutes (less time than it takes light rail to go 2 miles from Penn to Camden stations). Unfortunately, maglev is being planned almost exclusively for tourists, business and airport travelers, not the huge volume of residents and commuters. Moreover, there has been no serious planning for a connection to the north beyond a temporary terminus at Camden Station.

The projected economics of maglev are interesting. The MTA claims that maglev would generate revenues of $2.77 billion, in current dollars, over the life of the project. Operating costs for the same period are projected to be only $527 million, an incredible 525 percent fare-box recovery windfall. If that's to be believed, we would actually save taxpayer money for every commuter we moved off MARC and onto maglev, not to mention the billions saved by getting commuters out of their cars.

Freight has also been ignored.

Baltimore is not only the biggest passenger rail bottleneck of the whole Northeast corridor, it is also the biggest freight bottleneck, a fact that was painfully demonstrated by the Howard Street tunnel disaster in July.

The region would stand a much better chance of securing the necessary massive federal rail funding if we could demonstrate that we were poised to solve the rail problems that affect the entire East Coast. Such a plan would include a modern double track, a double stack freight line, a high-speed interregional passenger line and regional transit service, possibly all in the same corridor.

A new freight route would also free the low-clearance Howard Street tunnel and the CSX mainline for more appropriate use by passenger rail transit.

Thinking only of regional rail transit is hopelessly old-fashioned. The system must incorporate an entire hierarchy of transportation services, from interregional to regional to local to community-oriented shuttle buses. We shouldn't buy a Chevy transit system for travel in the 21st century. Someone should tell the MTA we're not living in the '60s anymore.

Gerald P. Neily is a Baltimore transportation planning consultant.

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