Light rail in city at autumn

Klaus Philipsen Q&A on the Red Line

Thank you to Baltimore’s CPHA for the following interview with architect Klaus Philipsen about the Red Line, which can be viewed in its original format on CPHA’s website

CPHA’s recent article on the Red Line garnered a host of enthusiasm from our readers. So this week we caught up with Klaus Philipsen, the president of ArchPlan, to answer all your questions about the Red Line. Klaus has been on the Red Line project since its inception but these are his personal opinions only and he is not speaking on behalf of the MTA.

CPHA: Simply, why does the current Red Line path and design make sense?

KP: It provides an east west rail connection that previously didn’t exist and complements the existing north south and northwest to north east lines as a third line, which connects with the other two lines and with MARC. Thus, it is a giant step towards a rail network increasing the number of stations by 40% (from 47 to 66) and bringing rail access to an additional 128,000 residents and 200,000 jobs.

CPHA: Why doesn’t the Red Line run under Fayette Street to Charles Street so that it connects with both the light rail and metro?

KP: This is one of the options that was evaluated. While excellent connectivity to the existing metro is a high priority and a line under Fayette would connect more directly to the existing metro entrance at Charles center, such an alignment would be further away from the Inner Harbor, from the Convention Center, from Oriole Park and M&T stadium, all major destinations that should have good connections. The Red Line cannot be a “one trick pony” that puts one aspect above all other. Also, the tunnels and the stations have to fit under the street width to avoid conflicts with building basements and foundations. Located under Lombard Street as proposed, the Red Line connects to Metro at the Inner Harbor Station via a pedestrian tunnel. It also connects directly to the Central Light Rail Line at the Howard Street Station.

CPHA: Why is the Red Line only calling for two cars? Do you see this creating a capacity problem?

KP:  In transit, capacity can be created through bigger trains or more frequent service. In a design with underground stations, bigger trains mean significantly more up front construction cost, while shorter trains that are more frequent mean higher operating costs. Since optimal transit is frequent, the rider comes out ahead with shorter but more frequent trains. The proposed Red Line trains also avoid the bulkiness of the original light rail that many consider overpowering. The smaller units will fit better into the existing streets where the trains run on the surface.

CPHA: Some opponents of the Red Line have argued for street line cars instead of the current Red Line proposal. Why is the current proposal a better idea? Do you think street cars have a place in Baltimore transit?

KP: As a third rail transit line, the Red Line was all along conceived as a “trunk line” complementing the other two services towards an integrated rail system. Streetcars have a different function and operate differently, i.e. slower, over shorter distances and more as a hop-on, hop-off type service that fills the voids left between trunk line services.

Streetcars would be a good addition to the Red Line, but they are not a substitute.

CPHA: Given the price tag, why is a tunnel through downtown necessary?

KP: It is always a difficult decision to send transit users underground and leave the streets to cars. Cities from London to Paris, from my hometown Stuttgart to Baltimore’s competitor Pittsburgh, decided to do this not only for metro systems but often also for light rail. Why?

Transit on trunk lines has to be reliable and reasonably fast. To achieve this on surface streets in downtown, severe restrictions would be necessary for surface traffic:c reducing available lanes, eliminating turn movements, reducing parking, etc. Everybody analyzing the alternatives eventually concluded that Baltimore was not ready to accept these kinds of traffic restrictions in our downtown where the Red Line would cross a whole serious of busy north south arteries. As proposed, the line is placed underground only where the streets are either very narrow (Cooks Lane, Fells Point) or where significant cross traffic had to be managed (MLK, Charles/Light and Calvert Streets and President Street).

CPHA: Are any of these questions being raised about the wisdom of the Red Line’s route and design (see above) actually new?

KP: No. Every alternative was investigated and analyzed for ridership, environmental justice, economic development, feasibility and cost. One line can never serve all remaining unmet transit needs. The Red Line is designed as part of a growing transit system, not as the last thing that will ever be done for transit in the Baltimore region.

CPHA: What are the biggest gaps in Baltimore’s current transportation system? How does the Red Line address these gaps? Where will gaps remain after the Red Line?

KP: East-west connections today are poor in terms of transit and car travel, in part due to the fact that the originally planned freeways in that direction were mercifully killed. The Red Line is filling this void, which has existed for decades. The big remaining gaps are in the northeast (to be covered by the future green line extension) and access to Towson (the future yellow line).

CPHA: Does it bother you that $600 million of the $2.57 billion of funding for the Red Line project remains totally unidentified? In other words, there are $600 million dollars in projected costs without funding sources. How will this be funded?

KP: I can talk about funding only with the knowledge that everybody else has. There are many ways to “skin a cat”. The assumed but simplistic 50-50 funding formula between local and federal funds is only one way, and it’s true that beyond two billion dollars the federal part may not grow anymore. Across the country transit is being built in spite of scarce dollars in a variety of creative new approaches. The critics current handwringing about funding is a bit suspect, as it comes mostly from those who always found a fly in the ointment regarding this project. Our State has resolved that it wants to fund at least two of its “New Starts” projects to meet the most urgent transit needs. (The Red Line and the Purple Line. Oregon, by comparison, pursued ten rail lines!). I am confident, that between federal funds, the state enhanced transportation revenues from the recent transportation bill, Public Private Partnerships, smart project phasing and some “value engineering” a solution will be found that makes both projects possible.

CPHA: What’s at stake for Baltimore if our elected officials hesitate on the current Red Line plan?

KP: Tepid support from elected officials would diminish our chances to maintain our good spot in the long line of those who compete for transit dollars. Once a project has been withdrawn or rejected for funding, the applicant usually has to go back to the end of the line. Forgoing a billion dollars of federal funds for our city and county would be extremely foolish because this investment can do so much more than build a transit line, it can truly transform the corridor provided City, County, MTA communities and stakeholders truly collaborate.

Luckily, I don’t see hesitation. All officials I have talked to understand that a city like Baltimore can only be competitive if it has excellent transit. Today as we try to grow the city, this is even more important. Mayor Rawlings Blake understands this. Just recently at a conference about how “rustbelt cities” reinvent themselves she pointed out that we need “more sustainable communities through better transportation” and that “the Baltimore Red Line is the unifying element that pulls all existing elements together”.

Increasingly, it is not only poor people who want to get around without a car. Being able to do that, and avoiding the hassle of congestion, gas, parking and the cost of the car is a major factor for people when they select which city they want to live in.

CPHA: How can citizens make sure the Red Line moves forward and how can citizens be more engaged around Baltimore transportation initiatives in general?

KP: As someone who came from a different continent to make this metro area my home, I can say that for decades Baltimore had an inferiority complex regarding what citizens here deserve, what they should have, and what they can achieve. Lately, we have had a more optimistic view about our city with its strategic location on the eastern sea-board and close to DC. We can have a bright future, just as bright as Boston or DC. We must strive for excellence and not accept mediocrity. We need to fight for getting the Red Line and not continue those fruitless “should have, could have” discussions. We must roll up our sleeves and begin to implement all those additional mobility solutions that will allow us to get around without having to use our own car. This includes car sharing, bike sharing, better walking connections, the water taxi, streetcars, a consolidation of the dozens of private shuttle services and much more. Most of this will not happen through the MTA or federal dollars. Many of these things are low hanging fruit, that we should get in short order. Others will take years of planning, all the more reason to start addressing these now, no matter to which organization we belong.

This interview is the first in series of interviews that CPHA will be conducting on the Red Line. Learn more about Klaus or follow his blog at Community Architect.

Red Line discussed on Dan Rodricks show – WYPR 88.1 FM

Red Line discussion on WYPR radio

If you missed today’s show, check out the podcast here.

Show description: If all goes according to plan, the Maryland Transit Administration’s long-debated Red Line, connecting southeastern Baltimore City with the west side of Baltimore County, will be up and running by 2021. A look at the early stages of the Red Line plans with Henry Kay, executive director of the Maryland Transit Administration’s Transit Development and Delivery office; Osborne Anthony, the Red Line’s chief architect; and Baltimore architect Klaus Philipsen.