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How to Fix Baltimore

Baltimore Magazine recently published an article by senior editor, Ron Cassie, with some bold proposals to, as the title says, fix Baltimore.  The article recounts some of the historical reasons for why Baltimore has come to be in the position that it’s in.  It’s not what most people would think, especially outsiders, who most likely think the issue is crime, because they’ve watched The Wire; they’ve maybe even binged it during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  It’s true that Baltimore, as it is now, is a product of the decisions made about its governance.

Whether one agrees with the ideas presented in the article, the article is a great starting point for discussions about what Baltimore needs to become in a post-Covid-19 (hopefully) world.  The office of Mayor is up for grabs this year with a bunch of candidates.  There are other offices up for grabs, though right now, those are not nearly as powerful as the Mayor’s office, which is touched on in the article.  Yet, these ideas need to be on the forefront as leadership changes in the City. 

One of the ideas presented in different ways in the article is that there needs to be more regional governance.  I agree and I’ll be discussing the ways in which I agree, below.  For that reason, I think this is an important read, not just for residents of Baltimore City, but of the entire Metro area, not just because some of the ideas, if ever implemented, would bring changes to the lives of non-residents, but also because the Baltimore suburbs, long intended to be bulwarks against urban ills, are experiencing some of those same ills and because the way that other areas around the country and the world are developing, the lines between Baltimore City and the surrounding Counties, are hindering, not helping.  Baltimore specifically and Maryland in general, are stuck in 1950’s thinking in 2020.

Below are my responses to a few of the ideas presented.

Knock down I-83

This gets a hell yes from me.  I first came across this idea a little over a decade ago.  If I remember correctly, it’s been discussed on the old Envision Baltimore listserv I lurked on for a long time.  As the article states, the idea entails knocking down the elevated portion of I-83, which spans several blocks before it terminates at Fayette Street.

While Baltimore might lose the charm of having its farmers market underneath the JFX anymore, it is past time to get rid of this.  As local business captain MJ Brodie, is quoted as saying in 2007, “Let’s plan now to demolish this elevated, archaic section of I-83.”

People who work in more northerly reaches of Baltimore City, as well as those who live in the suburbs, would probably lose their minds at the prospect of not being able to speed into, and out of, Downtown (or crawl, whichever the case may be), 83 is a scar Downtown.  Getting rid of it would not just re-stitch together neighborhoods, as the article says, but doing so might also help lead to two more changes in the urban environment that might lead to some good: daylighting the Jones Falls and figuring out something with the stretch of I-83 adjacent to Woodbury/Hampden and Clipper Mill.

Yes, a river flows through the middle of Baltimore, but you’d miss it if you didn’t know it’s there, because once it passes by the Harbor, it gets encased in concrete all the way through to parts of North Baltimore.  But that’s a topic for another blog post.

With respect to that more northerly stretch of I-83, they need to do something.  There seems to always be an accident there; traveling northbound, there are major curves and the speed limit drops to 50, but drivers often ignore this, which leads to the accidents.  And on the southbound side, we’ve even had cars leaving the highway and dropping into the valley below.  Maybe once we’ve figured out how to live without the highway stretch of 83 south of Penn Station, we may figure out what to do with that stretch, which leads to congestion and delays so frequently because it’s so dangerous.

Other cities are learning how to live without some of their highways and freeways.  As the article discusses, San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway suffered damage in the Loma Prieta Earthquake and then they tore down the rest.  Seattle buried their Alaskan Way Viaduct.  Boston’s Big Dig built a highway partially underground at its start.  Will Baltimore follow?

Car-Free Streets

One of the days that New York closed Broadway to cars, I was there.  I loved it.  Plenty of space to move around and not be close to people (that sounds like something that we may want to do moving forward for at least a while anyway).  Restaurants set out extra tables.  There was so much life on the street.

Not that I discussed the idea with too many people back home because Baltimore is often dismissive of outside ideas (aside from former Mayor Martin O’Malley, who seemed like he couldn’t get enough of them and the people who had developed them), even ones that could be adapted to make Baltimore better, so married to the status quo are so many Baltimoreans.  And any idea that threatens car culture in Baltimore is going to be especially derided.

Yet, as the article reports, Councilman Ryan Dorsey suggested closing Charles Street to cars.  No matter what the benefits may be, it’s an idea that would probably need a ton of support because those voices afraid of losing every single inch to speeding up to the County would be loud.  But still, I think it’s a good idea.  Not just because I think the City needs to be focused more on the needs of its own citizens until such as time as true regionalism is achieved, but because there are some stretches of Charles Street with restaurants and all that could use the freedom to expand into the outdoor environment, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because doing so might bring some life to those parts of Charles Street.  Now, ideally, Charles Street would be closed to cars and the once-proposed Yellow Line light rail would run on it, but the Yellow Line is another topic for another blog post.  Or, perhaps another section of this one.

Charter Reforms to Mayoral Power

I could just say “Healthy Holly” and be done with an argument for why this is good, but it goes further than that.  I agree that the mayor in Baltimore’s system has too much power.  Cassie outlines some of the ways in the article, but I want to add that Baltimore needs to get rid of the Board of Estimates, which puts way too much spending power into the hands of too few people.

While we’re at it, I agree we need ranked choice voting.  Anything that’s nonpartisan.  A lot of people complain that Democrats have had too much power for too long in Baltimore.  This is only a surface read.  Baltimore’s politics don’t always follow national trends.  There are people registered Democrat whose politics don’t necessarily follow the center-to-left-center (or even left-leaning) politics most associated with national Democrats.  It’s a hodge podge and some of this is probably attributable to the desire of people in some circles desiring to be close to power and some not wanting their vote to be disregarded entirely, since other political parties are marginalized in Baltimore City.  Baltimoreans need to hear from other voices and some other form of elections would help to make that a reality instead of the Democratic primary more or less deciding most elections within the City.  

Long term, I think Baltimore needs a City Manager, in conjunction with a Mayor (out of the norm of either governmental form, I believe).  In this scenario, the city manager would be in charge of the day-to-day management of the city and the Mayor would focus more on “big picture” things.  Ideally, the City Manager would be elected on their own.  Perhaps, if we were to maintain partisan elections, the City Manager would legally come from a party in opposition to the Mayor.  Just an idea.

Build the Red Line

Fully in support of this.  The City needs to have an east-west, fixed-rail transit line built.  Regardless of what Larry Hogan might have thought when he canceled the line, transportation planners thought it was needed, not just in 2002, but in the late 1950’s (probably the only 1950’s era Baltimore idea that I do like).  The reason cited to cancel the line was because of the tunnel under Boston Street, even though other alternatives had existed.

I think this project may be more crucial than ever.

The Maryland General Assembly has been recently working hard to craft the future of commuter/regional rail in Maryland.  Among the ideas presented are service to Delaware to meet up with SEPTA Regional Rail and service into Virginia.  Also presented is the need to connect the MARC Penn Line, which runs along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and the MARC Camden Line, which runs along parts of CSX’s Baltimore Terminal Subdivision and Capital Subdivision.  A connection between the two lines could conceivably take the form of the proposed East Baltimore MARC Station as well as some other connection that could possibly route Penn Line trains into Downtown Baltimore. 

If Penn Line trains were to meet their Camden Line counterparts, the connection would probably be right at Pratt Street, right at the Convention Center and Camden Yards.  Red Line conceptions had the line traveling right along Pratt Street and meeting the current light rail line there.  If I remember correctly, there were plans for it to run either in a tunnel or on the street.  One of the reasons for the anger surrounding the cancellation of the 2002-planned Red Line was that the line was meant to, among other things, give people on the west side better access to jobs on the east side.  But, with the Penn Line possibly making an appearance in this part of town, alongside the Camden Line, then a revived east-west line would give west side residents not just better access to the east, but improved access to the Penn Line (at two stations) and the Camden Line.

Overall, a new hub for fixed rail transit would be a net good for Baltimore as a whole.  As the money and city’s focus has moved more towards “Inner Harbor East,” making a transit hub closer to the traditional Central Business District would bring relevance back to that area.  It’s difficult to consider the idea of Maryland finally offering commuter trains that terminated in Downtown Baltimore the same way that it offers ones that terminate in Washington, D.C., and not support it.  Especially if there were more connections to other areas of the City and surrounding areas at that point.

Cassie also mentions the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition’s push for a regional transit authority.  It’s my position that the only way that a new Red Line, or any other line, will ever be built, is if it’s done in a regional transportation authority.  The decision can’t be left up to Annapolis, no matter who the governor is.  We rightfully decried Larry Hogan for cancelling the project, but it also sat for years under Democrat Martin O’Malley while he was governor.  And while he was mayor of Baltimore.

This also goes to the regionalism necessary to make the project worthwhile.  The Red Line didn’t end at the Baltimore City line, but extended to the park and ride out in Woodlawn.  The history of transit projects is fraught with NIMBYism and outright racism but, before the Red Line’s cancellation, there was support from Kevin Kamenetz before his death.  The next line will need to regain that support.  A line that possibly terminated at Security Square Mall would help bring some relevance back to that area as it struggles to find some new use.  A park-and-ride at the mall with access to the line would not just help get people from the western suburbs to get Downtown, but the mall there could become a real center of activity like it used to be before the growth of Owings Mills.

Any proposed RTA also needs to consider that we don’t need just lines, but a system.  So, if the state is considering planning an East Baltimore MARC Station, then any future transit line on the east side needs to connect with it.  And while we’re at it, if they’re going to build such a station, it would be nice if the current subway could be extended to it, since it terminates so closely to the Northeast Corridor.  Ten years ago, we could have quipped about Joe Flacco being able to throw a football from the Metro station to the Amtrak tracks.  These days, we can quip that Lamar Jackson could run from one to the other in a matter of seconds.  Or throw the ball, since he has some arm too.

Create a Metro Government

The City and County of Baltimore?  I need to think about how I feel about it more, but I’m confident that even if I lived to 120 years old, I would not see it.  However, that does not mean that in the meantime, we can’t think and act more regionally.  That needs to be done on transit and transportation.  The City needs to reconfigure some of its streets to serve its immediate residents, but that doesn’t mean that the two can’t collaborate on common solutions like a regional transit authority and such.  They’re already collaborating on crime along I-95.

But creating a metro government?  I don’t know.  Baltimore is not a big city now and whole areas are being ignored.  I can’t imagine then adding in, not necessarily places immediately adjacent to the City like Woodlawn, Catonsville, or Parkville, but places like Hereford and Middle River, and expect those places in the city currently that are ignored now to improve.  The resources would be there, but along with that, would still be residents of those places that wouldn’t be keen to give up part of their way of life to live in those places.  And to be honest, I’m sure there are more than a few who live out there, specifically because they don’t want to be inside of Baltimore City.

Maglev

So far as I know, it’s going to be built and it’s out of the hands of City leaders.  Outside of the possible construction jobs, I’m not seeing much benefit, at least in the short term, until the full line is built.  Some folks, who are able and willing to pay prices that may rival Amtrak’s Acela Express, will commute on it, depending on convenience, etc.  

From what I understand, the station will be located in South Baltimore, if it’s not located at or near the Harbor.  That may be a problem for those in other parts of the city and other areas that may want to use it for their commutes.  It would probably be convenient for people living in or near Cherry Hill, Westport, or Port Covington, and Port Covington may be the target for their choice of location for the station.  Commuting from, say, Parkville, might not even be an option.  It would probably be easier to just hop on 95 and drive from there.  If Port Covington ends up being built as envisioned –and with the pandemic, who even knows if it will be?– and the current Light Rail receives a spur across the water to Port Covington, then that may help with people coming from outside of the immediate area.  But, this is a ways off and there are lots of questions other than what might happen with the current Light Rail.

Also, the stated goal of at least Northeast Maglev has never been travel between Washington and Baltimore, but Washington and New York.  The phase to Baltimore, as I understand it, was meant to be the demonstration phase.  If and when the project expands and moves towards full production, I don’t know if it’s clear what Baltimore’s role will be in the service.  I think it might be a “nice to have” option for the area, but I think, at least in the near future, steel wheels on steel rails will be the way we go in the Baltimore region.


As I said before, I think the article is a great starting point for conversations about Baltimore’s future, along with ones about what’s going to happen in the neighborhoods, including municipal WiFi.  Digital Harbor Foundation is working on that right now with their Project Waves, so hopefully that will be the start of a larger network around the city, since they’re handing Chromebooks to students these days.  No one person or group knows how to fix Baltimore, so hopefully, it’ll be a large discussion.

 

Writer, et. al.

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