Baltimore should look at a streetcar alternative to the Red Line

Baltimore Streetcar Museum (Wikipedia)

The Baltimore Red Line project has stirred up a great deal of controversy over the past few years.

As I wrote last week, it is 14.1-mile of track that does nothing to connect major parts of the city that lack dependable public transportation. The cherry on top is that the proposal – at this moment – will cost $2.6 billion.

The Red Line’s price tag should have forced decision makers to look at other possible alternatives. One of these other options has gained traction in many other cities across the country and could not only improve public transportation all over the city but also spur economic development. How about a streetcar alternative?

Portland Streetcar (Public Domain)
Portland streetcar (Public Domain)

Portland streetcar example

Since its inception in 2000, the Portland streetcar system has created urban revitalization in many parts of the city. According to D.J. O’Brien of the CoStar Group, not only has daily ridership rose in Portland from 4,000 to 17,000 over this time period, but areas around the lines have seen a significant increase in economic development.

The Portland Transportation Department reported in 2008 that within the two-block area of their streetcar routes sat a $3.5 billion in development, including 10, 212 housing units.

Case in point: Take the Pearl District in Portland. In the late 90s the area was known as an unsavory warehouse district. The area has now transformed into one of Portland’s hot neighborhoods with an influx of small businesses after a streetcar line was introduced in 2001.

Other cities have taken notice. Tucson, Atlanta, and Seattle have plans to have their streetcar systems up and running by the end of the year. Twelve more cities expect to start construction next year on streetcar systems.

Washington DC has done extensive research on the subject

Washington D.C. has an ambitious plan to construct a 37-mile streetcar system starting with a 2.4 mile route in Northeast along H Street and Benning Road. It may seem counterintuitive for a city with such an expansive and highly regarded Metro system to want to lay down streetcar tracks.

However, D.C.’s Metro concentrates on connecting the surrounding suburbs to downtown. The streetcars would bring together neighborhoods to create growth in undesrserved communities within the city.

Baltimore in 1943. Streetcars were the way to go. (Library of Congress)
Baltimore in 1943. Streetcars were the way to go. (Library of Congress)

The January 2012 D.C. Office of Planning report on the proposed streetcar network forecasted that families with convenient access to rail-based public transportation would skyrocket from 15 – 60 percent. As far as development is concerned, the Office of Planning believes the system will create in the neighborhood of $5 – $8 billion in new investment in the next decade with $300 million in retail spending annually. Streetcars are projected to bring in anywhere from $238 – $291 in annual revenue.

No streetcar option was ever considered for Baltimore by the City or the State?

I’m not saying we are Washington D.C. or that projections for Baltimore would reach these numbers. I would like to know why no one in a position of authority looked into alternatives that could serve more citizens and boost more development and revenue?

Charles Street Development Corporation initiated a streetcar study for Charles Street in 2004. The CSDC study assessed the potential for a fixed-rail streetcar in Baltimore’s historic Charles Street corridor. The 3.5 mile route would connect the city’s Inner Harbor and Central Business District to University Parkway in Charles Village, according to the study.

The Charles Street Trolley Corporation (CSTC) was formed to oversee the planning process and currently the organization is looking at finance options. But this project is only for Charles Street Corridor and not the entire city. We still have several more miles to connect.

Where is the city’s study?

Can the Mayor’s administration actually say that the Red Line is the best means to go forward in solving Baltimore’s transportation issues? God knows the city needs real urban renewal in the majority of the City. Tell me why if it can be so feasible in other cities around the country that it was never seriously considered in Baltimore?

Since we taxpayers are going to flip the bill for our public transportation projects, our local and state governments owe us the effort to look at and research all the options available to us.




4 thoughts on “Baltimore should look at a streetcar alternative to the Red Line

  • February 12, 2018 at 4:16 PM


    “Why not a streetcar? Yuk Yuk!”
    “Why not a bus rapid transit? Yuk Yuk!”
    First off, “Streetcar” and “light rail” are >OSTENSIBLY THE SAME THING.surplus.< We would be happy with a surplus of a few grand! Give me a break.

  • April 29, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    You make some excellent points in this article, and I agree with most of them.

    The part I respectfully and passionately disagree with is your use of Portland and Washington as parallels to Baltimore. Both of those example cities built their streetcars quite awhile after acquiring what Baltimore lacks: A stable system of criss-crossing lines that can take people across the city in either direction in a timely manner. In the cases of Portland and Washington, streetcars were essentially a nice luxury to fill in some remaining development holes. Baltimore, by contrast, is still mostly hole, in transit terms. For most of any given day, the entire East and West sides have no access to a rail system with <60min headways at all.

    Let that sink in for a moment.
    In a city of 600,000+, we have no bloody east-west line.

    Several of my friends live in Canton or Patterson Park, work at SSA in Woodlawn and are considering a move to the suburbs. The red line as currently envisioned would allow them to stay in their homes, while a trolley would not. I know they are not unique cases; many people actually want to get across town in a timely fashion on transit, as they can in most other large American cities.

    So yes, build a trolley. But build it AFTER the red line gets built, since these things always take forever to get federal funding. (And lets be clear: Even with the city considering a pitch-in, this is still mostly funded at the state and federal levels, with city residents of all social classes benefiting. Compare that with the Harbor East giveaway bonanza for the wealthy, and the red line seems like a pretty good deal to me.)

    We can't delay any longer. Having already slid well behind Boston and Philly for third-city status on the East Coast, we're now looking at falling to the level of Camden, Newark or Wilmington if we don't fix this right now. Not 10 years from now.

    Right. Now.

    Thank you for reading my opinion.

  • April 4, 2014 at 5:09 AM

    Yes, Mr. Jenkins!!! There’s very little technical difference between modern streetcars and light rail anyway. It’s all about building a true connected system with the right mode in each corridor. That’s what other cities do, but our closed-minded MTA only wants their slow, low capacity Red Line at the price of a heavy rail Metro. And now it’s gotten so expensive that the MTA wants the city to contribute $250 million to the project, as if the city could afford that kind of money. If the MTA wants to play bait-and-switch, let’s switch to something buildable and affordable.

  • April 3, 2014 at 10:51 PM

    this gentleman like most others seems to forget transit in Baltimore is STATE run and not a city function..

    while I agree the redline is not perfect far from it, however it is getting done unlike the Charles street or anyother streetcar..
    certainly the popularity of the CHarm City Circulator as a precursor to streetcars should prove the point. certainly the last couple of streetcar lines abandoned in the city should be a starting point, even the anti streetcar Baltimore Transit company wanted to keep the 8, 13, 15. 19, and 26 lines as streetcars.(1963 routes) and they are stilll some of the cities heaviest bus routes

    but again it is either get the MTA(state) to do it or come up with the money locally to do something.

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