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Transit


Here's a closer look at what's in store for Union Station

Plans for renovating and rebuilding parts of Union Station are well underway, the aim being to better connect train, bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic to accommodate a surge in ridership over the next 25 years and beyond. On Wednesday, the public got a closer look at some of the possibilities.


Photo by David Jones on Flickr.

Union Station houses DC's busiest Metro station, is the hub for both of the region's commuter rail systems, MARC and VRE, and is both the second-busiest intercity train station in the country and the second-busiest station in Amtrak's system. In anticipation of rising demand, planning started last year for a $10 billion, four-year expansion project that could triple station capacity.

Several hundred people attended a Wednesday night meeting to hear what the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, has in mind for the overhaul. While plans for expanding the area where passengers wait to board trains surfaced Wednesday morning, this meeting was about telling the public about the need for renovating and rebuilding virtually the entire complex, from parking areas, bus terminals, taxi stands, and train platforms to the original station building and the space above the tracks just north of the station.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

With Union Station being in its 109th year of service, some of the project's literature refers to the project as the "Second Century Plan."

Here are some of the functional features the project team said it's looking to bring to Union Station:

  • A more efficient way for taxis and car services (including ridesharing programs) to pick up and drop off passengers. Taxi drivers typically have a 30-45 minute wait in the taxi queue at the station today.

  • A more bike-friendly environment. There's currently too little capacity for both bicycle parking and bike sharing to meet even current demand.

  • Wider train platforms, as the ones there now aren't compliant with ADA standards, and also do not meet standards for an emergency evacuation. Widening the platforms will actually mean a decrease in the number of tracks at the station, from 20 to 19. But planners also emphasized that intercity rail capacity will increase because the platforms will be significantly longer-- nearly a quarter mile in some cases.

  • Larger, more open concourses that can handle the expected tripling of passenger demand by 2040.

  • A safer bus terminal, where there's less of a chance that people and buses will need to use the same space. Also, a more visually appealing bus terminal.

  • A complex that meshes well with the H Street Bridge, which will be rebuilt in the next several years.

Architecture, parking, and air space

One thing the FRA is putting significant emphasis on is the aesthetic appeal of the new station. The current building is on both the National and Washington DC Register of Historical Places, and its key features, such as the great hall, will remain unchanged. Presenter Paul Moyer reviewed examples of other stations around the world that are both functional and attractive, to use as an example.

While demand is maxing out for just about every mode of transportation that passes through Union Station, there's one mode where it's not: driving. Usually, only 70-90% of the parking spaces Union Station's garage are full at peak times, and nearly a quarter of those are leased out on a monthly basis, meaning they're likely used by workers in surrounding offices not directly tied to the station.

Rather than increasing the number of parking spaces, the planners are simply looking to make a more visually appealing parking facility. An architecturally renowned garage in Miami was cited as a possible inspiration.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Also, having empty railyard just blocks from the US Capitol is not the most economically stimulating use of space. Therefore, the air rights over the tracks were sold to Akridge, who will develop a project called Burnham Place, a mix of offices, retail, hotel, and residential that will sit above the tracks. Because the air rights begin at the current height of the H Street Bridge, designers will not be limited to a claustrophobic experience like what travelers experience at New York's Penn Station.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Federal Railroad Administration (and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation), Amtrak, Akridge, DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service all own different portions of the affected site, and will need to sign off on the plan, as will various historical review boards and federal interests.

Community engagement

While at least some of what was presented is very likely to happen, nothing is a done deal yet. The official purpose of the meeting was to solicit input from the community before developing formal proposals.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Community members were shown a scale map of the study area (roughly, the current station footprint, including the parking garage, plus the tracks as far north as L Street), and asked to place cardboard templates representing possible concourses, bus terminals, and other features in various places on the map, to gather feedback on possibilities.


Photo by the author.

The strongest sentiments at both this meeting and the last one, which was in December, were about how the Union Station project will affect surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community is looking for better intermodal connections (between Metro, Amtrak, bus, and streetcar), and local residents is looking for better connections to the neighborhood itself, such as through the long neglected entrance off of H Street, and to have many of the nearby Metrobus routes actually stop at the station, rather than blocks away.

Because the projects are dependent on one another, both local residents and the business community asked that the required environmental reviews for Burnham Place and the rest of Union Station will be done at the same time. This is not guaranteed, because the process for each project is different.

If you would like to view the presentation from the FRA, it is posted here, and comments are still being accepted on the site. The next public meeting, where project alternatives will be presented, is scheduled for this summer. Once the project is approved, construction is expected to last about four years.

Bicycling


Union Station expansion plans will help train riders, cyclists, and many more

Union Station and the surrounding area is in line for a huge renovation. Amtrak just announced a design to add new space to wait for trains. Other changes in the works could extend the Metropolitan Branch Trail and make Columbus Circle more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.


Image from KGP Design Studio/Grimshaw.

On Tuesday, Amtrak released designs of the most immediate next step in its vision. It will push back the wall facing the trains, so that instead of waiting in too-small, uncomfortable pens for trains, people will have a more expansive space including a large glass wall looking out at the tracks.

But that's just the start. In the longer run, Amtrak is looking to add new entrances, lower-level concourses, and retail, and make existing platforms wider. Developer Akridge is also working on a project called Burnham Place, which would bring new office space, residential units, hotels, and retail atop the tracks directly north of Union Station.


The Metropolitan Branch Trail could one day look like this where it connects to Union Station. Renderings from Akridge.

Burnham Place would include "a green linear park connecting pedestrians and bikers north to Montgomery County in Maryland"—otherwise known as the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The trail would be built above the metro tracks, as a separated alternative to the existing protected bikeway that runs along First Street NE.

In the renderings below, the elevated park runs north behind the Union Station Bike Station on the building's west side, continuing as a tree-lined, elevated strip to the current trail just north of L Street.


Burnham Place with the MBT, looking from the south.


View of Burnham Place with the MBT, looking from the north.

The project, as rendered, would also create new connections to the trail. A pedestrian connection between the trail and 2nd Street NE would be added at K Street NE. A new segment of I Street built through Burnham Place would connect the trail to the new north-south roads in the developments as well as the new road built between Union Station and the buildings that front 2nd Street NE, such as the SEC building.

The DC Bicycle Advisory Council (BAC) has submitted comments asking for more secure bike parking. There's currently bike parking in the Bike Station at Union Station's southwest corner and at some outside racks in the same area. But sometimes there isn't enough, and what's there is notoriously theft-prone. Also, it's all in one place even though Union Station has multiple entrances—there doesn't even appear to be any bike parking in the existing parking garage.

One particular area the BAC recommended was on the north side of Columbus Circle near the existing flag poles across from Union Station.

In addition to these changes, the BAC has also discussed a complimentary idea to redesign Columbus Circle for better use, in light of Delaware Avenue and First Street NE south of D Street being closed for security reasons after September 11th.

If Delaware and First's connections to Columbus Circle were closed to automobile traffic, the roads could be narrowed, parking could move off of Massachusetts Avenue, and there'd be more space for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.


Image from Google Maps.

Delaware Avenue could become a woonerf, used by cyclists going to or from the Circle and by drivers, accessing it only from D Street, for parking. First Street could be narrowed to two lanes with angled parking on one or both sides, while leaving a space for protected bikeways.

The addition of parking to First Street would allow for the removal of curbside parking on Massachusetts Avenue between First and Second Streets NE. This block is confusing, as it features two lanes wide enough for side-by-side traffic and curbside parking. Removing the parking would allow this block to feature three or four traffic lanes and a continuation of the bike lanes from Columbus Circle. For pedestrians, the south side of the circle would feature shorter bike facility crossings at New Jersey and First, instead of the current road crossings.

The Federal Railroad Administration will host a meeting on Wednesday, March 30th to give the public a chance to review the drafted project elements for Union Station's expansion.

Transit


The Northeast Corridor carries more rail passengers than anywhere else in the country. What could it look like in 2040?

The Federal Railroad Administration recently unveiled their draft plans to improve rail travel across the northeast, from Washington to Boston. The plan will help set the stage for a potential transformation of train service in the mega region.


Acela at New Carrollton. Photo by the author.

Today, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are linked by a busy rail line known as the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The 457-mile line is the busiest passenger railway in the nation, carrying over 750,000 passengers each day on more than 2,200 trains.

But the corridor is desperately in need of investment just to bring it to a state of good repair. Several chokepoints mean that the line is currently operating near capacity, which means it can't support expected growth in population, employment, or intercity travel.

The plan is what's known as a "Tier 1 EIS." That means that it is an environmental analysis that looks at the broader issues. Detailed study of specific elements will require "Tier 2" EIS studies and those will be conducted as projects work their way through the planning process.

The plan sets out three options

The analysis looks at three main scenarios for investment in the Northeast Corridor. Each of the options has the same core objectives: making rail more reliable, dependable, durable and environmentally sustainable, increasing both the number of passengers it can carry and the places it goes, and contributing to economic growth. But some of the plans are more ambitious than others.

Alternative 1 would make fixes to existing rail and other infrastructure, but would otherwise leave things alone. Its investments in the corridor would mainly involve fixing chokepoints, with limited areas of additional track. It allows for an increase in service which would keep pace with employment and population growth.


Alternative 1. All maps from NEC Future.

The second alternative would build more rail, allowing an expansion of capacity faster than population or employment growth. Work will involve getting rid of chokepoints, widening most of the corridor to four tracks, and building a few new segments outside the current alignment.


Alternative 2.

The third option would build a lot more rail, the goal being to "transform" rail into the dominant mode in the northeast. In addition to upgrading the existing corridor with new track and chokepoint relief, this alternative adds a new independent high-speed line parallel to the corridor. Between Washington and New York, it's very close to the existing route. However, between New York and Boston, there are three possible routings, including one via Long Island and two through inland Connecticut.


Alternative 3.

There's also a "no action" alternative, which assumes the corridor won't be upgraded, in which case, capacity and travel times won't be changed by 2040.

Each option has different ridership projections and capacity increases...

More people will certainly ride on the corridor by 2040, and taking no action would mean doing little to accommodate that growth. Even now, tunnels under the Hudson River are completely full during rush hour; the current 24 trains per hour in each direction is the maximum.

Alternative 1 would allow for a 75% increase over the no action alternative for inter-city trips and a 13% increase for commuter trains, to 33.7 million and 474.5 million trips, respectively. This scenario would add two new tunnels under the Hudson and allow for 37 trains per hour.

Alternative 2, which expands the role of rail, would allow for a 92% increase in inter-city and an 18% increase in commuter trips on the corridor, to 37.1 million and 495.4 million, respectively. The second alternative also adds two new Hudson tunnels, which, in conjunction with other projects, would allow for up to 52 trains per hour in each direction.

The third alternative, which transforms the role of rail, more than doubles intercity ridership to 39 million trips and increases commuter rail ridership to 545.5 million, a 30% increase. This option adds four tunnels under the Hudson, for a total of six. It would allow up to 70 trains per hour to cross under the river.

...as well as a different effect on travel time

Each of the alternatives would reduce travel time over the no action option. Without the proposed improvements, an express could cover the distance between Washington and New York in 2:47. It would be 6:33 to Boston.

Alternative 1 would reduce the Washington to New York express time to 2:43 and Washington to Boston to 5:45. Alternative 2 does even better, reducing the New York trip to 2:26 and the Boston trip to 5:07. But Alternative 3 is the fastest, with a completely new high-speed corridor reducing travel time to New York to 1:48 and to Boston in 3:57.

For corridor trains (roughly equivalent to today's Northeast Regional), there are also time savings. The no action alternative would have Washington to New York trips in 3:23 and Washington to Boston in 8:02.

Alternative 1 would allow corridor trains to cover the distance to New York and Boston in 3:08 and 6:57, respectively. Under the second alternative, DC to New York would come in at 3:01 and to Boston in 6:22. The major investment alternative would bring times down to 2:51 to New York and 5:47 to Boston.

Details for each alternative
Even the no action alternative costs $19.9 billion. That's because it includes the costs of funded projects, funded and unfunded mandates, and over $10 billion in projects that are necessary to keep the corridor operating but which are currently unfunded.

Alternative 1
Alternative 1 is the cheapest alternative, with an estimated price tag of $64-66 billion.

There are a few notable projects included in this option. Locally, it calls for rebuilding New Carrollton station so that it has four tracks, each with access to a platform. It also includes a project to widen the corridor to four tracks from Odenton to Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station with four tracks.


Alternative 1 in Baltimore.

Importantly, the plans call for replacing the B&P Tunnels in Baltimore, which are near the end of their useful life. The plan also includes two new tunnels under the Hudson, bringing the total to four.

One realigned section of track is part of this alternative, a 50-mile bypass of the shore line in Connecticut and Rhode Island, between Old Saybrook and Kenyon. Slower trains would continue to use the curvy line, but faster trains would run on the new line, which would avoid several drawbridges.

Alternative 2
Alternative 2 comes in at around $131-136 billion.

Like the first alternative, it includes four tracks at New Carrollton and between Odenton and Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station. It also calls for a third track between Washington and New Carrollton.

The B&P Tunnel replacement in Baltimore and two new Hudson tunnels are included in this option as well. But the plan also adds two new tunnels under the East River (for a total of six), which was not part of the first alternative.


Alternative 2 in northeastern Maryland.

Several new segments are also part of this project, bypassing slower sections of the line with straighter bypasses. A new line between Aberdeen, Maryland and Newark, Delaware, a bypass of Wilmington, and a straightened section in north Philadelphia allow for faster trains. The plan also includes running a more direct route into Philadelphia 30th Street station via a station at Philadelphia Airport.

Alternative 3
Alterative 3 is the most expensive, since it's building two railway corridors. The estimate for that option ranges from $267 to $308 billion, depending on which route is chosen.

This option upgrades the existing corridor significantly, including many of the projects from the other alternatives. Under this plan, the existing corridor would be widened to four tracks for most of its length south of New York. This aspect would include four platform tracks at New Carrollton and BWI Airport.

Like the other proposals, this alternative replaces the B&P Tunnels. It also adds two new tubes under the Hudson for the corridor and two more Hudson Tunnels (for a total of six) for the high-speed line. The East River would also get two new tunnels (for a total of six).

The existing corridor wouldn't get very many straightenings under this plan, since the second spine would be far more direct and faster. The high-speed line would include tunnels under downtown Baltimore and Philadelphia, with center city stations there.


Alternative 3 in Baltimore.

North of New York, the second spine would be on a completely new route. There are a couple of options for the new routing.


Options for a new high-speed routing north of New York.

Between New York and Hartford, the new line could either run east across Long Island to Ronkonkoma and turn north to cross the existing line at New Haven before continuing to Hartford or it could turn north via White Plains and Danbury before reaching Hartford.

From Hartford to Boston, the line could either run east to Providence and then along the existing line to Boston or northeast to Worcester and then east to Boston.

These new lines are expensive, but have the possibility of opening up new markets, especially on Long Island.

Conclusion
Each of the options outlined in the FRA study is expensive. But an upgrade to the corridor is necessary. The current infrastructure is aging and overburdened. Chokepoints like the Hudson tunnels severely constrain capacity, and will prevent Amtrak and commuter agencies from meeting growing demand.

And the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Without this investment, the northeastern mega region won't be able to move efficiently or grow. And that will have dramatic economic consequences.

But not investing in rail will mean that we'll have to spend even more enlarging highways and airports. And even with that, we'll still have to spend money just keeping the existing Northeast Corridor infrastructure in a state of good repair.

Transit


Is Baltimore's train station in the middle of nowhere? Is DC's?

Our contributors recently got to comparing and contrasting Baltimore's Penn Station with Union Station in DC. Some people say Penn Station is "in the middle of nowhere," but the truth is that it's closer to its respective downtown than Union Station. The difference is that Penn Station has fewer neighborhoods and tourist attractions nearby.


Penn Station in Baltimore. Photo by Forsaken Fotos on Flickr.

First, some details

Baltimore's Penn Stations serves Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor, MARC trains on the Penn Line, and MTA Light Rail. The station station lies in between the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, south of the station, and Station North, which is designated as Baltimore's Arts and Entertainment District with venues such as The Charles Theatre nearby.

Union Station, Washington DC's rail transportation hub, also serves Amtrak trains as the terminus of the Northeast Corridor, along with serving MARC, VRE, and Metro. It's also a leisure destination with retail functions and eateries.

Is one of these stations "in the middle of nowhere?," In this context, what does "middle of nowhere" even mean?

"Far" is all about perception

Penn Station isn't in the middle of nowhere, says Matt Johnson. "It certainly isn't more in the middle of nowhere than Union Station. I think it's just a perception of how difficult is to get to 'somewhere' from Penn Station as compared to Union Station."

"Baltimore Penn Station is 1.24 miles from Charles Center, the center of downtown Baltimore," Matt adds. "Union Station, on the other hand, is 1.78 miles from Farragut Square, generally considered to be the centroid of downtown DC."

But what people immediately see often shapes what they think. "From my perspective," says Claire Jaffe, Penn Station seems to be in the middle of nowhere because it is almost completely surrounded by large roads and highways and very few buildings. When you come out of the station and do not go directly into a car, it's hard to figure out where to go. Union Station, on the other hand, is much more bustling and is close to not only a tourist destination but lots of jobs."


Photo by catharine robertson on Flickr.

"Even when Penn Station was also called Union Station, both railroads that used it had more central stations to the south for terminal trains," says David Edmonson. "It's not a new perception. That said, I think the subway messes with the perception of distance. It's a very short ride through dark tunnels to Farragut, but a slow ride through the city to Charles Center. With the cityscape, it just feels longer."

Union Station is more woven in with its surroundings

Canaan Merchant says Union Station feels like it's better-located because "being next to the Capitol and Supreme Court helps. Though I kind of put those institutions and the Mall in general in kind of a separate category from Downtown where most workers are."


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

"Union Station may be farther from Farragut Square than Penn Station is from Charles Center," says Dan Malouff, "but downtown DC extends east all the way to Union Station. Functionally, Union Station is on the edge of downtown. Penn Station is not on the edge of downtown Baltimore. There is a neighborhood in between. Baltimore's situation is analogous to if Union Station were in Columbia Heights or at RFK. Not 'nowhere,' but definitely not the center of town."

"I think this has a lot to do with Capitol Hill," says Neil Flanagan. "Since the 80s, Union Station been a destination unto itself as a festival marketplace. So, there's a lot to be said about vibrancy creating the sense that one neighborhood is connected to another."

While Union Station is close to many of DC's tourist attractions, Tracey Johnstone notes that Penn Station station is three miles from Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor and Aquarium, and Fells Point, Baltimore's three primary tourist attractions that weekend travelers most often would like to visit:

"Penn Station is not nowhere, but its relatively hard to get downtown from there, or to the action and jobs in south and southeast Baltimore, or to the stadiums," Jeff La Noue says. "The Red Line would have had a speedy connection to all of these from the West Baltimore MARC Station two miles west from Downtown. The West Baltimore MARC is 5-10 minutes shorter time than Penn Station if coming from DC on the MARC. Without the Red Line, the west Baltimore MARC station is very isolated."

Do you have a question? We'll pose it to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Transit


MARC, VRE, and Amtrak service might stop on January 1st

On January 1st, trains that carry millions of commuters might stop running. That's because in 2008, Congress set a deadline for trains to have a certain type of safety feature by the end of this year, and a lot of train operators won't be able to meet it.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

The law Congress passed requires that any railroad line hosting regular inter-city or commuter rail service, along with freight lines that carry certain types of hazardous materials, be outfitted with "Positive Train Control" (PTC) by December 31, 2015. For much of the nation, that isn't going to happen, and that means those lines will stop operating on January 1st.

Realistically, the only way that freight and passenger service in the United States can avoid being crippled on January 1st is if Congress extends the PTC deadline. If it doesn't, commuters in many cities, including Washington and Baltimore, could see train service disappear.

Here's how PTC works

Positive Train Control is a system of controls built into the track, locomotives, and radio antennas that will stop train crashes in a variety of circumstances. Had PTC been in place at Frankford Junction earlier this year, it would have almost certainly prevented the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia this May.

PTC will automatically stop a train before it runs a red signal, takes a curve too fast, or enters a work zone at an unsafe speed. In order for it to work, the track has to be outfitted with equipment that can tell the train where it is at any given time, radios that will communicate data to the train, and equipment in the cab that interprets those signals and slows or stops the train as necessary.

Congress decided to mandate PTC in the wake of a deadly head-on crash between a Metrolink train and a freight train in Los Angeles. But this was an unfunded mandate. Following it is costing public agencies like MARC and VRE and railroads like CSX and Amtrak billions of dollars.

The fact that the deadline is approaching and PTC is not yet in place across much of the network is not for lack of trying.

Six years may seem like a long time, but to design, install, test, and activate this complex system over thousands of miles of track was and is a herculean task. And it was made more difficult by miscues, especially from the Federal Communications Commission, which dragged its feet allocating the radio frequencies necessary for the system to work.

Some of our region's rail providers will meet the deadline, but others won't

With the deadline to have PTC operational just three months away, railroads are scrambling to figure out what is going to happen. Most of the big freight railroads say they won't meet the deadline. They're all actively working on PTC, but there's just not enough time to complete the work before December 31.

On the other hand, some railroads are ready, or will be. In Los Angeles, Metrolink, the regional commuter rail network, already activated PTC on the tracks it owns, but sections controlled by other railroads remain unfinished. Amtrak says most of its Northeast Corridor will also be ready by December 31. But Amtrak trains on other lines won't be so lucky.

That's because on much of Amtrak's network, the passenger trains run on tracks owned by other railroads, who haven't gotten their equipment in place. Amtrak has been able to get the equipment in place because it owns most of the Northeast Corridor.

Unfortunately, the New York MTA actually owns the corridor between New Rochelle and New Haven, so PTC won't be in place on its section by the end of the year. But between New York and Washington, trains should still be able to operate.

That's some good news. It means that MARC service on the Penn Line shouldn't be disrupted.

On MARC's other lines and on VRE, the story isn't the same. In their cases, CSX and Norfolk Southern don't have their networks ready and won't by the deadline.

Chicago's Metra, one of the largest commuter rail operators in the country, has already begun alerting their riders that unless the deadline is extended, service will stop after December 31.

The shutdown of commuter and inter-city passenger service, along with many freight shipments, could have a huge impact on many regions and the nation as a whole. In the Washington region, thousands of commuters ride in to the city on commuter trains. That number is much higher in other cities.

Without commuter trains, these riders will have little choice but to travel other ways, which will likely increase congestion, pollution, and motor vehicle crashes. And for businesses waiting on shipments stopped because PTC hasn't been turned on, jobs and productivity will be at risk.

At this point, only Congress can keep trains running

Only Congress can fix this. So far, it hasn't shown much inclination to get this (or anything else) done.

House Republicans introduced a bill to extend the deadline three years. However, in the Senate, some Democrats are trying to use it as leverage.

California Senator Barbara Boxer says that unless House Republicans pass a transportation reauthorization, the Senate won't pass the PTC extension bill.

PTC installation won't be complete on most of the tracks that are required to have it by December 31. Without Congressional action, much of the nation's rail network will shut down as 2016 dawns.

That's an unacceptable outcome, but it doesn't mean a polarized and gridlocked Congress will actually manage to stave off the crisis.

Transit


Maryland's governor thinks the Purple Line is too expensive, but wants to build a $10 billion maglev. Huh?

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan campaigned on cutting costs. Since taking office, however, he's expressed interest in throwing big money at numerous transportation programs—just not the transit lines that actually work and which businesses and residents want. His latest big spending idea: A $10 billion maglev between DC and Baltimore.


Shanghai's maglev. Photo by Rob Faulkner on Flickr.

Hogan is in Japan right now on a trade mission, and according to WAMU's Martin di Caro, has agreed to work with Japan and seek federal funds for a study of what it'd take to build a maglev line here at home.

The Federal Railroad Administration has $27.8 million available for a maglev study, but Maryland is the only state in the nation that's interested in seeking the money. Japan is offering $5 billion in loans to help make the line happen, but that money would still have to be paid back.

The maglev line could run over 300 miles per hour and, di Caro reports, possibly go from DC to Baltimore in 15 minutes (though time estimates for transportation facilities often are rosier, before the gritty details come in).

However, to run that fast, the tracks would have to be very straight. There's no place to put very straight tracks right through the mostly-suburban area in between; instead, maglev supporters expect the line to be mostly in a tunnel. According to contributor and maglev supporter Peter Dovak, Japan's maglev (which is different from its well-known "Shinkansen" high-speed trains) will run in a tunnel for 85% of its length.

That makes it very expensive.

If money is no object, hey, knock yourself out

We shouldn't necessarily sneer at spending big bucks on transit. It's not like the United States doesn't spend far more money on all kinds of things—liberals might point to military hardware, while conservatives might point to aid to the poor.

But it's hard to make the case that maglev is a better investment than the raft of projects already in the pipeline.

The obvious big ones are the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line, which Hogan has said are "too expensive." His administration has dismissed studies that purport to show big economic benefits from building the Purple Line, instead focusing entirely on the cost.

But you can't focus on the cost of the Purple Line and not the cost of a maglev. This graph shows the amount Maryland, counties, and the private sector would all have to pay to build the Purple Line, not counting federal money already pledged and money already spent. On the right is the expected maglev cost.

In a press release, the Action Committee for Transit noted that Governor Hogan has still not been willing to tour the Purple Line route with local leaders. Meanwhile, he want to Japan, rode their maglev, and said, "seeing is believing."

There are other, clear priorities

Besides the Purple and Red Lines, there are plenty of ways to spend less money that have immediate, clear benefit. Di Caro points to additional 7000 series railcars that could expand Metro trains to eight cars and add capacity.

There's also the MARC train, which has grown ridership by 3.5% per year over the last 15 years even though service remains infrequent. MARC could be so much more—an all-day, two-way, frequent railroad that connects Baltimore, DC, Frederick, Aberdeen, BWI, and many places in between, and even goes to Crystal City and Alexandria to get Marylanders to federal jobs there.

Maryland has a long-term plan to grow MARC with more tracks (so trains don't get stuck behind freight trains), more trains, more service, more parking, new stations, and much more. It's worth funding that.


Build this first, Hogan. Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Between DC and New York, Amtrak needs to put in computerized train control (to avoid more crashes like the recent one), repair its infrastructure, and speed up trains. In Maryland, the B&P tunnels in Baltimore need to be replaced, and so do the bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush, and Gunpowder Rivers. The catenary wires need replacement and upgrades.

Amtrak trains are full and expensive, but remain a much more dependable way to travel between Northeast Corridor cities than cars or intercity buses, all of which get stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike (recent widening didn't include any bus or HOV lanes, for instance).

Amtrak could speed up its Acela trains from 135 to 160 mph with catenary and signal upgrades, saving a lot of time.

Think big, but not only big

Even with all this, if Governor Hogan were eager to invest in these projects and also wanted to study maglev, fine. Let's think about exciting future possibilities. Daniel Burnham did so famously say, "make no little plans." He meant, make big plans. He didn't mean, make big plans and then refuse to fund all of the other little plans too.

Hogan wants to build roads. But the road system grew, and still grows, by incremental new projects that add capacity or missing links in the network. Hogan would be laughed out of the room if he proposed cutting all road maintenance and canceling every small, local road expansion, and instead pouring all of the state's money into a new car tunnel from Cumberland to Annapolis which has no exits in between.

(That's more like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's Route 460, a truck highway that would have paralleled a non-congested existing highway. Virginia canceled the project amid widespread ridicule and ended up wasting $256 million, getting nothing.)

If Hogan announces he wants to build the Purple and Red Lines, invest in the MARC plan and Maryland's share of Amtrak upgrades, and buy more railcars for WMATA, I don't really have a problem with also looking at maglev. But if he cancels one of the light rail lines which already have federal money, big business support, widespread resident support, and private companies ready and waiting to bid; if his administration pleads poverty on funding new railcars for WMATA... then he has absolutely no business talking up a totally-new $10 billion project.

Transit


Maryland plans a new station at BWI and other projects to run more trains

Maryland's Mass Transit Administration is planning upgrades to the Amtrak/MARC station at BWI Airport along with several other projects along the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor within the state. The projects will make Amtrak and MARC trains in the area more reliable as well as allow more trains to pass through the overcrowded rail corridor.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The project will reconfigure the station to have four mainline tracks, each with access to a platform. It will also include a nine-mile fourth track that will run alongside the existing ones, and a new station building with a larger waiting room.

The proposal is currently undergoing an assessment to determine how it would affect the environment. If MTA can get the funds and further environmental review isn't necessary, the final design process could start next year. Even then, though, construction probably wouldn't start until 2017 or 2018 at the earliest.

A lot of people use the BWI station, which isn't built to handle them all

The current BWI Airport rail station is served by Amtrak and MARC trains on the busy Northeast Corridor. On top of being a popular way to get to the airport, the station also gets heavy use from commuters because it has two parking garages with over 3,000 parking spaces.


Existing station. Image from Maryland MTA.

The problem is that the station's layout is inefficient, and it's operating above its designed capacity. The station has two platforms on either side of the three-track Amtrak main line. In order to service the station, trains must be on one of the outside tracks, which reduces operational flexibility.

It can be problematic because even the limited-stop Acela Express trains occasionally stop at BWI. Also, the location of interlockings, where trains can change tracks, means any train serving the BWI station has to run on the outside track for 9 miles, from Odenton to Halethorpe.

Fast trains, like the Acela, share the railroad corridor with slower Northeast Regionals and commuter trains making local stops. If an Acela or Regional needs to stop at BWI, it has to be on the local track, and that can mean getting stuck behind a slower MARC train (or having dispatchers hold the MARC train so the higher-priority Amtrak train can pass it before getting on the local track).

With a four-track station, fast trains on the center tracks won't have to slow down to switch to the local track or mix with commuter trains. That will make it easier for Amtrak to schedule stops for the faster trains. And with fewer conflicts, will allow more MARC trains.

Ridership at the BWI rail station has dwarfed its capacity to handle the crowds. When the station opened in 1980, it was primarily designed to serve the two MARC trains in each direction that operated between Baltimore and Washington. The waiting room only seats 40 people. Today, more than 32,000 passengers use the station each day. Just under 60% of those are MARC riders; the rest are Amtrak customers.

Correction: It appears the 32,000 number, which comes from the Environmental Assessment documentation, was part of a poorly phrased paragraph. The 32,000 passengers referred to count those who use the station and also counts anyone who passes through on a train without boarding or alighting. Sorry for the confusion.

Another constraint is the track arrangement. Right now, the section of track sees 92 Amtrak trains and 56 MARC trains each day. But by 2030, expected service levels will rise to 110 Amtrak trains and 135 MARC trains, an increase of 66% from 148 to 235 trains.

Building a new station

The new station will have four tracks, each with access to a platform. The existing southbound side platform will remain in its current location. The current northbound side platform will be enlarged into a center platform, and a new northbound side platform will be constructed alongside the new fourth track.


Proposed station layout. Image from Maryland MTA.

When completed, the new four-track segment will tie into an existing four-track segment that runs between Halethorpe and West Baltimore. That will mean the corridor will have a 14.5-mile segment of four tracks, greatly increasing operational flexibility and redundancy.

The project's status

The Federal Railroad Administration is leading an environmental assessment (EA) to determine whether the likely impact of the project will require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or if it can go to design and engineering without that step. The EA is scheduled to be finish this summer.

If the result of the EA is a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI), the project will be able to proceed directly to engineering and design if funding is available. If an EIS is required, however, that process will probably take about two years to complete. The design phase and the process of selecting a contractor will probably take another two years.

During construction, at least two tracks need to be open to traffic, each with access to a platform. That means it will take three and a half years to complete the project. Certain parts of the project, including the new station building and larger waiting room, should be finished in about two and a half years.

The estimated costs for the project, including nine miles of new track, two new platforms at BWI, and a new station building is approximately $540 million. Funding sources haven't been identified, but will likely be a combination of funding from the federal government, Amtrak, and the state of Maryland.

Other projects are in the works

In addition to the BWI improvements, Maryland, Amtrak, and the Federal Railroad Administration are working on several other projects that will help rehabilitate and expand infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor. Some of these projects have been on Maryland's wish list for several years.

Between West Baltimore and Baltimore Penn Station, the corridor runs through the B&P Tunnels, which were built in 1873 and are badly in need of repair and replacement. The tunnels have a speed limit of 30 miles per hour and the four-track segment has to narrow down to two tracks, creating a bottleneck.

The replacement of these tunnels is currently undergoing the environmental review process and doesn't have funding. If that changes, the project will construct a new two-track tunnel to replace the B&P Tunnels. Once it's complete, the older tunnels will be shuttered for an overhaul and then later returned to service.

Amtrak is also studying the replacement of the Susquehanna River Bridge, which carries trains across the wide river just above its mouth. It was built in 1906 and is also badly in need of repair. The current proposals will replace the two-track span with two two-track spans, enlarging the corridor to four tracks here.

The replacement is not currently funded beyond the study phases, but getting through the environmental process is a necessary step for getting the project to "shovel-ready" status and making it eligible for federal funding.

Two more much-wanted projects do not have funding, even for environmental studies. Amtrak also needs to replace long bridges over the Bush and Gunpowder Rivers north of Baltimore. Maryland applied for federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act several years ago for studies of these bridges, but the request was unsuccessful.

These infrastructure projects are a huge part of ensuring the economic vitality of the Boston-Washington corridor. Currently, Amtrak carries three quarters of the Washington—New York air/rail market, and that share is only growing. Much of the infrastructure in the corridor is now over a century old, and suffers from deferred maintenance.

Amtrak and the commuter railroads, like MARC, that ply the corridor want to increase capacity by running trains more frequently. But without investments in infrastructure, that won't be possible. And in fact, if certain projects, like the Gateway Project in New York and New Jersey, are not completed, capacity may actually be lower than it is now.

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