Going Hither and Yon in Baltimore, It Ain't So Easy
In America, we mass produce everything, even traffic. Bumper to bumper commutes are common in America today, and Baltimore is no exception. As the city's population decline slows, as Harbor East booms, as military personnel funnel into the area due to base restructuring, Baltimore's transportation will be forced to evolve. How big are Baltimore's coming challenges, and can the many proposed solutions keep Charm City from grinding to a standstill? Read on for our overview of Baltimore's transportation future.
We've already got traffic. Baltimore ranked as the country's 18th worst city for traffic in 2007, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report. We're less clogged than LA or NY, but we still waste 44 hours a year in traffic and burn 41.8 million gallons of fuel we could be a saving.
We've got incoming. The United States Base Relocation and Closure Act (BRAC) could bring an estimated 25,000 new households to the Maryland area. Construction has already begun at both Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Fort Meade. Baltimore is situated to benefit from a huge influx of business. What comes with that influx, though, is traffic, and the hardest news is this: BRAC creates new transportation needs but doesn't provide funding to face them.
Old age is hard. Baltimore's infrastructure is aging. The Hanover street bridge, for example, was built in 1900, while the Howard Street tunnel dates from 1895. The city's Department of Transportation (DOT) is working closely with the water bureau to keep both traffic and water flowing smoothly, according to DOT Deputy Director Jamie Kendrick, but, he admits, breaks are unpredictable, as proved by the dramatic water main break that snarled downtown traffic in April. You can't avoid old age.
Growing Pains. Every time one looks towards Harbor East, a bright new building is raising it's roof. This waterfront boom is great for the city and tough on traffic. While the water provides great views, it limits access, meaning that a few key roads have to bear more traffic than ever.
Disconnected Options. Does the Light Rail connect to the Metro? Where? Can I take my bike on the bus? If I take the water taxi from the Harbor to Fells, which bus can take me back? Baltimore's transportation history is one of half-complete systems. This often confusing jumble of options makes careful study a prerequisite for getting around.
Planning a the Way
Baltimore has almost as many ideas and plans to fight the traffic problems as there are cars. Tearing down the JFX, A gondola above the harbor, trolleys in Fells Point or Charles Street, all have been recommended for solving various problems in and around Baltimore. Though all of these ideas are still being discussed and promoted, the ideas below are those you're more likely to see and, hopefully, use.
The Red Line. The heavyweight favorite of transportation plans, the Red Line is currently in the decision making progress. With the support of the state Department of Transportation and the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, the Red Line looks well positioned to succeed. When it does, that would mean a dedicated mass transit line from Woodlawn in the West, through downtown to Hopkins Bayview Medical in the East. That transit line could consist of a rapid bus system or a light rail train running both above and below ground. Which option is selected will effect the cost, with prices ranging from $280 million to over $2 billion, according to the Red Line's webpage. The Red Line would also connect to the current Light rail and MARC stations, helping tie together Baltimore transit.
The Bike Plan. Bikes not only take cars off the road, they promote public health. Perhaps most importantly, they're cost effective. "To create a bike lane, all we're doing is putting paint on the road," says the city's Bike Coordinator, Nate Evans. "We get a lot of bang for our buck." Though Baltimore only hosts 45 lane miles currently, more are being built this coming winter and spring. In addition, more bike racks and a "Street Smart" safety campaign should make the task of biking Baltimore's streets more friendly.
The BRACtion plan. Before most people knew what BRAC was, Baltimore and Maryland were getting ready. The BRACtion plan includes changes as diverse as road repaving and new and upgraded bus routes. Also included is an already underway expansion of the MARC train. Currently operating at full capacity, according to MARC's website, the regional train system plans a series of upgrades to vastly increase its abilities. This will be needed since it serves both of the expanding BRAC bases. Though most of the BRAC growth is expected in the counties, the city is working trying to improve transit to the bases. Unfortunately, much of the state's money is going towards interstate upgrades, rather than to fund alternative transportation.
The Circulator. Circulator buses will begin running through some of Downtown Baltimore's heaviest trafficked areas later this fall. If embraced by the populace, the Circulator could keep lots of cars off the streets. Unlike with the DASH shuttle of the past, dedicated funding should keep the Circulator running long into the future.
You. Train tracks and bus routes and bike lanes make no difference if people don't use them. If the city's efforts to get around it's traffic problems are matched by the populations willingness to leave their cars behind, great strides can be made. Though biking in Baltimore or piecing together a trip on Baltimore's fractured mass transit systems now may seem like the act of a Lewis or a Clark, that won't always be the case. As alternates become available, it is up to the population to use them and to forge a new path into a swiftly moving future.