Building Baltimore

February 23, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. and his advisers, weighing whether to seek federal funds for an expanded Baltimore rail system, ought to get out of town - and visit some of the growing number of cities across the country using rail to leverage economic development.

An extensive system - conveniently linking downtown Baltimore, city institutions and surrounding suburbs - would take commuters off congested roads and reduce pollution, of course. Just as critically, it would provide a wealth of new development opportunities across the region and add significant value to such city redevelopment efforts as the west-side renaissance and plans for an east-side biotechnology park.

Advocates of the Baltimore regional rail plan - to add 66 miles to the area's 43 miles of light-rail and subway lines over 20 to 40 years - have identified 700 acres ripe for development along the proposed system. They project that 34,000 new or redeveloped housing units and almost half the region's total jobs by 2025 could be concentrated close by - providing a needed brake on the sprawl devouring central Maryland.

The extent that rail generates development is a highly politicized debate. But right now no other concept rivals the rail plan's potential for drawing jobs, residents and economic vitality back into Baltimore - benefiting the entire region and state.

Evidence of that is as handy as Washington, where four decades of building Metrorail has led to a wave of transit-oriented developments. It's as surprising as Dallas, where a 7-year-old light-rail system has quickly overcome skepticism, exceeded ridership projections and attracted $1.2 billion in private investment - from a huge convention hotel to new suburban centers.

In two studies covering 1994 through 2001, Bernard Weinstein, a University of North Texas economist, found property values within a quarter mile of many Dallas light-rail stations rose much more than those of comparable but more distant properties. The most favorable impact was on office and home values.

A recent downtown Dallas housing boom may have come more from tax incentives, but 30 percent of downtown residents now use light rail to reverse commute to jobs farther out. Most telling has been the enthusiasm of Dallas' suburbs: Richardson and Plano attracted big investments to remake their cores in advance of light rail's arrival last year, and regional voters just approved extending the system.

Private investment similarly has followed light rail in San Diego, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore. In Baltimore, that dynamic already is partly evident in the $750 million committed so far to the west-side project, at the nexus of the city's few transit lines. Conversely, failure of such outlying stations as Glen Burnie and Owings Mills to lure development testifies to the need to dramatically improve and expand these lines.

The deadline for setting Maryland's priorities for the next six years of federal transportation funding has been delayed to March 14. Robert P. Flanagan, Governor Ehrlich's choice for transportation secretary, says a decision on supporting the rail plan's initial stages hasn't yet been made. He says the plan's concept needs more specificity, and he questions its affordability.

These are valid concerns. But what's mainly required here is a very long-term vision - of the rail plan's vast potential. The present may be extraordinarily tight financially, but committing to the initial stages of the rail plan now could well yield statewide rewards for a half-century or more.

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