Greater Greater Washington

Posts about MARC

Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

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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."

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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.

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Transit


Maryland officials won't talk about more MARC trains

Maryland transportation officials have nothing to say about running more MARC trains between Union Station and Frederick County. That's what state legislators and commuters learned at a recent public meeting in Germantown.


A MARC train at the Dickerson station. Image by Samual Ruaat on Wikipedia Commons.

Frederick County Delegate Carol Krimm led a group of state legislators in organizing a meeting to hear from the state officials about plans to help residents of northern Montgomery and Frederick Counties travel to jobs located closer to DC.

Delegate Krimm asked the Maryland Department of Transportation to address two topics: Governor Hogan's recently announced plans to spend $100 million on I-270, and potential upgrades to MARC's Brunswick Line, which serves the same corridor.

Greg Slater, chief planner for the State Highway Administration, talked for some time about the Hogan plan for I-270, but he was short on specifics. He said the state will spend $100 million on "innovative traffic congestion relief strategies," but he couldn't say what those will be. SHA plans to issue a Request for Proposals and see what ideas the bidders come up with.

Kevin Quinn of the Maryland Transit Administration followed, speaking at equal length on transit other than MARC. On the Corridor Cities busway and Montgomery County's BRT planning, he simply recapped previous public presentations.

The one transit topic where new information emerged was investigations into running buses on the shoulders of interstates. In many places, Quinn said, SHA had found obstacles like bridge pillars and roadbeds too weak to bear the loads, but it expected to soon locate a stretch of interstate for a trial of the concept.

Finally, MARC's Erich Kolig gave a very short talk focused mostly on new equipment recently purchased by MARC. He said nothing about what the audience had come to hear about: what it would take to expand the Brunswick Line beyond the one-way rush-hour service now provided. Most of the half-dozen legislators and 50-odd members of the public in attendance sported "More & Better MARC" stickers distributed by the Action Committee for Transit, which had leafleted train stations about the meeting.


MARC's Brunswick Line. Map from MTA Maryland.

Legislators and the public peppered the visitors with skeptical questions, complaining of insufficient action on MARC and other fronts. State officials answered inquiries about I-270 and Corridor Cities with detailed information about travel patterns and previously released studies. But they said almost nothing in response to repeated calls for more trains. The most Kolig could offer was that cars with space for bicycles might soon run on the Brunswick Line on Mondays and Fridays.

Another meeting on this topic will take place early next year.

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Transit


The MARC's Brunswick Line only goes one way in the AM and the other in the PM. It could do both.

Service on the MARC Brunswick Line only runs one way at a time: toward DC in the morning and away from DC in the afternoon and evening, on weekdays only. Some MARC riders think there is a simple way to make service between DC and Brunswick run both ways in the early and mid-afternoon.


Photo by Phil Hollenback on Flickr.

Currently, the Brunswick-bound train that leaves Union Station at 1:30 pm (P871) runs only on Fridays. And when the train returns from Brunswick to Union Station in mid-afternoon (as P884), it does so without picking up passengers. Running P871 every day and having P884 pick up passengers would provide meaningful two-way Brunswick Line service.

CSX constrains MARC's ability to add service

Since 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has had the goal of all-day, two-way, and weekend Brunswick Line service. However, CSX, the freight railroad company that owns the tracks the Brunswick Line runs on, has said that MARC may not add trains on the Brunswick Line until Maryland begins to build a third track, which the state has not yet done.

At last week's MARC Riders Advisory Council meeting, riders (disclosure: I was one of them) talked to MTA officials about a way to get two-way service without adding trains to the schedule. The early-afternoon train to Brunswick (P871) and mid-afternoon return train to DC (P884) already exist; they just don't run every day. MARC need only restore daily service to one and passenger service to the other, and voilà: the first step toward full two-way service.

The Friday-only early-afternoon train could run every day

The early-afternoon train (P871) currently leaves Union Station on Fridays at 1:30 pm and arrives in Brunswick by 3:04. Before the MARC service cuts in 2009, this train ran every weekday. If you needed to come home early, that was the train you took. The number of riders on the train each day was low, but the proportion of MARC riders who used the train on occasion was high.

Almost seven years after the service cuts, the early-afternoon train is still running only on Fridays. Riders at the advisory council meeting wanted to know why. MTA has restored other service that was cut in 2009, like service on Columbus Day and Veterans Day. Also, because MTA kept the Friday service, the train already has a train slot, trainset (engine and passenger cars), and crew.

There could be passenger service toward DC in the afternoon

There was also talk at the advisory council meeting of service towards DC in the afternoons. The trainset and crew for the early-afternoon train to Brunswick return to DC as train P884, but P884 doesn't pick up passengers.

In the mid-1990s, there was a mid-afternoon train towards DC that picked up passengers. That train left Brunswick at 4:30 pm, with a scheduled arrival at Union Station at 5:30 pm, and flag stops along the way. Could MTA could restore this service as well?

One potential problem might be a delay in the return to Union Station. MARC uses the same trainset and crew for an evening train to Martinsburg, so a delay in P884's return would lead to a further delay for an outbound train. However, MTA could solve that problem by stopping the train only at Point of Rocks, Germantown, Rockville, and Silver Spring. This would add only a few minutes to the trip.

Discuss the Brunswick Line further at a meeting

There will be a public meeting about MARC Brunswick Line service and other transportation topics in the I-270 corridor, sponsored by state delegates from Montgomery and Frederick Counties, on Wednesday, September 9, at 7 pm, at the Upcounty Regional Services Center in Germantown. People from the Maryland Department of Transportation, including MTA, will be there.

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Transit


MD & VA commuter rail look great together on one map

Maryland's MARC train and Virginia's VRE are very similar regional rail systems. This map shows what they might look like as a single integrated regional network.


Map from Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented.

Although MARC and VRE aren't all that different, they operate totally independently of each other. Riders on one may not even be aware the other exists. This map would help change that.

The two agencies will probably never merge, but it might someday be possible to integrate their operations to work more like a single system. MARC trains might run across the Potomac into Virginia, and VRE trains might continue north into Maryland. It would be difficult but possible.

In the meantime, this map from Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented is a nice unofficial first step. And it's easier on the eyes than the current official MARC or VRE maps.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


Forest Glen residents and a state delegate want a MARC station in Forest Glen

Residents of Forest Glen (just north of Silver Spring) are teaming up with Maryland state delegate Al Carr to petition for a new MARC train station in their developing neighborhood.


Base image from Google Maps.

Carr, whose District 18 includes the area, thinks the neighborhood needs this kind of transportation investment in order to grow. "I have long believed that commuter rail has great potential to improve mobility in our region," said Carr. "Between the existing neighborhoods and the recent development that has taken place nearby, restoring the Linden MARC stop makes a lot of sense."

Supporters of the plan hope to convince the Montgomery County Planning Board to add the Linden station to the Lyttonsville Sector Plan. Lyttonsville abuts Forest Glen and borders Rock Creek Park just outside of downtown Silver Spring. The petition emphasizes that a station in Lyttonsville on MARC's Brunswick Line, would serve workers at the Walter Reed research institute and the Naval Medical Research Center as well as residents of the Linden, National Park Seminary and Forest Glen Park neighborhoods.

A MARC station at Lyttonsville would make Forest Glen the only neighborhood in the entire region that had immediate access to a Metro station, I-495, and a MARC train stop. With Governor Hogan's latest announcement on the Purple Line, Forest Glen could become a hub of new development focusing on its proximity to various transportation options.

What makes the timing of this petition interesting is that it comes at a time when the MTA (Maryland Transit Administration) is seeking to add another Montgomery County Station on the Brunswick Line sometime between 2020-2029.


Image from the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The MARC's Growth and Investment Plan projects new growth in suburban Maryland, and it wants to plan for new transportation options accordingly. A stop between Kensington and Silver Spring on the Brunswick Line could serve any additional development prompted by the Purple Line and existing neighborhoods that have expanded in recent times—like the National Park Seminary.

History

Long before there was a Metro station at Forest Glen and before any talk of a Purple Line stop in the neighborhood, Forest Glen had a train station at Lyttonsville.

Built in 1887, the Forest Glen Train Station was primarily built to service the National Seminary Park campus. All that's left are foundations of the platforms and remnants of the station's walls. By the 1950's, the B&O Railroad demolished the station due to a lack of use and the Capital Beltway (I-495) was eventually constructed over the site.


Image from Save our Seminary at Forest Glen.


Image from Save our Seminary at Forest Glen.

With the Forest Glen Metro Station's parking lot ripe for development and further plans to consolidate master plans with nearby Montgomery Hills, adding a MARC station in Forest Glen could spawn even more development and redefine this otherwise not well-known neighborhood.

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Transit


MARC fares may go up more than they have to

Candidate, now Governor, Larry Hogan said he opposed higher fees and taxes. Yet the Maryland Transit Administration is increasing MARC fares by more than the state law seems to require. This coincides with large cuts to tolls for drivers, raising more questions about the Hogan administration's support for transportation that runs on rails.


Photo by Austin Cross on Flickr.

The fare increase raises the one-way fare for each zone by $1, for a percent increase for Maryland riders ranging from 9% to 25%. For example, the fare for a one-zone trip, such as Union Station-Seabrook, Union Station-College Park, or Union Station-Kensington, will go up from $4 to $5 (+25%).

The fares for weekly (seven-day) tickets will increase by 45-67% for Maryland riders. For example, one-zone weekly fares will increase from $30 to $50. And the fares for monthly (good for the whole month) tickets will increase by 17-35% for Maryland riders, with one-zone monthlies increasing from $100 to $135.

These increases reflect both the one-way fare increase and a change in the formula for calculating weekly/monthly fares, from 7.5 times to 10 times the one-way fare for weeklies and 25 times to 27 times the one-way fare for monthlies.

Fares have to go up, but not this much

The Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 requires MTA to increase MARC one-way zone fares and weekly/monthly passes in fiscal year 2015 by at least the same percentage as the 2009-2013 increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all urban consumers, to the nearest dollar. The CPI increase was about 10%.

But there is nothing in the language of the law about changing the formula for calculating the weekly/monthly fares. And the change in formula accounts for a meaningful part of the fare increase.

For example, the statutory increase in one-way fares alone would raise the price of a one-zone monthly ticket from $100 to $125 (+25%). But under MARC's fare increase, thanks to the change in formula, the ticket will cost $135, or $10 per month (8%) more.

Also, while MTA does not have to hold public hearings for fare increases required by the 2013 act, state law does require MTA to hold public hearings for other MARC fare increases.

The MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC) has called on Governor Hogan to delay the fare increases and hold public hearings about them because it believes that the increases are greater than state law requires. (Disclosure: I am a member of the MRAC.)

Maryland says the law requires the fare increase

MTA maintains that the fare increase is mandated by law. MTA and Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials at last week's MRAC meeting gave two reasons for changing the formulas.

The first was that people with weekly/monthly passes can now use them seven days a week. This thinking doesn't account for the whole picture, though, because only the Penn Line offers the weekend service. Trains on the Camden and Brunswick Lines continue to run Monday-Friday only.

The second was that the average number of trips on a weekly/monthly ticket has gone up and that the law requires MTA to adjust the formula based on current ridership data. The ridership data here consists of MARC conductors' daily tallies of monthly, weekly, and one-way tickets. However, MTA officials agreed with MARC riders that these data are unreliable. Also, the data say nothing about the average number of trips an average rider makes on a weekly/monthly pass. Most importantly, the text of the act says nothing about adjusting the formula for weekly/monthly tickets based on ridership data.

Responding to the MRAC's objections, MTA Administrator Paul Comfort announced a new five-day pass, with a price calculated according to the original formula (7.5 times the one-way zone fare). This is welcome news for regular MARC riders. But he also said that MTA will keep the increased new formula for monthly passes and will not hold public hearings on the resulting fare increase.

After the meeting, the MRAC again called for public hearings, specifically citing the questionable data MTA used to calculate the new formula for monthly passes.

Cut tolls, increase MARC fares

As several MRAC members pointed out at the meeting, the greater-than-minimum fare increase for monthly passes looks bad for MTA and the Hogan administration. Hogan opposed taxes, fees, and tolls as a major part of his campaign. A campaign ad from the Republican Governors Association, showing a picture of a MARC train, blamed then-governor Martin O'Malley and lieutenant governor Anthony Brown for a transit fare increase.

On May 7, the Hogan administration claimed to deliver on his "promise to...put money back in the pockets of hard-working Maryland families" with a cut in tolls for drivers. Less than three weeks later, the administration announced a MARC fare increase that is bigger than the law seems to require.

What is the Hogan administration trying to tell us? Aren't MARC riders hard-working Marylanders too?

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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.

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Supporter—$20
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