Supporters Hope to Regain Momentum for Trolley

A proposal to build a new trolley line connecting the Inner Harbor and North Baltimore has stalled.

Five years ago, the prospects that there would be a trolley line from the Inner Harbor to University Parkway by 2012 appeared to be gaining traction.

But since then, momentum for a Charles Street Corridor Trolley has slowed to a near halt.

The most significant recent development is an economic impact study that is supposed to be completed this spring. Kristin Speaker, of the Charles Street Development Corp., which has backed the trolley proposal, said the study will show possible benefits of the trolley. But even the report's findings may not generate any renewed push for the project.

“We’re aware that (Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) doesn’t support the project,” Speaker said.

A proposal for a trolley running from the Inner Harbor to University Parkway to help draw tourists to institutions such as the  was introduced several years ago. And in 2007, backers of the trolley began to hold public meetings to discuss possible routes and financing options. Meanwhile, trolley opponents started their own website to push back against the project's expense and the trolley's possible adverse impact on exisitng mass transportation.

A website in support of the trolley line detailed its cost -- $156 million.  Of that amount, $136 million would come from the city and state through various means and $20 million from the federal government. It was also expected that the trolley would cost $4.5 million a year to operate and that would come from the fare box and city funds used to operate Baltimore City Shuttle Service on Charles Street.

However, when the economy tanked in 2008, resulting in major budget constraints on Baltimore and the state, momentum for the project all but evaporated, and the trolley line has been pushed to the backburner. 

Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor isn’t against the project, but that its supporters need to show that the project can pay for itself.

“They need to show they can generate independent outside funding,” Brennan said. 

Now that the city is facing another budget deficit — estimated to be —  any new proposal needs to come with its own funding sources.

Even as the prospects for a trolley connecting the Inner Harbor and North Baltimore dim, advocates for the project are trying to create grassroots support.

Mark Counselman, a founder of the independent advocacy group Friends of the Trolley, is confident that the trolley will regain its traction, especially if the group can demonstrate enough local support.

“I think the mayor’s a reasonable person, and we will build momentum and when she sees the community is behind it, she’ll come around,” said Counselman, an Oakenshawe resident.   

He said he understands the bad economy is making things tough for the city and that funding for projects such as the trolley isn't readily available. But he thinks there's a constituency to advocate on behalf of a trolley line as part of Baltimore's transpotation future.

“I think the ball’s in our court to prove the future of cities is great transit networks, and it’s as simple as that,” Counselman said.

ralahinn1 January 12, 2012 at 01:31 PM
I hope they build the trolley, I would use it, and it would be a novel way to travel downtown.
Stephen Gewirtz January 12, 2012 at 01:39 PM
At far less expense, the City can simply extend the purple line of the Charm City Circulator north from Penn Station to University Parkway. The Circulator will then do everything the proposed trolley would do. In addition, it will not be subject to the blockages that a trolley running on a single track in a traffic lane on one way streets will be subject to. Therefore, we will have far more reliable transportation with the Circulator than we would have with the proposed trolley.
lisa boyce January 12, 2012 at 02:42 PM
The cost of the proposed fixed rail trolley will be borne by all the City and State taxpayers and not just those who want to take 45 minutes to get to downtown from Hopkins campus. Because of the nature of a fixed rail system, there is no flexibility in route and unlike a rubber tire trolley cannot be rerouted for festivals or special events. Rail maintenance facilities will be required. This is an expensive public transit option that will not, alone, drive an positive economic impact. Look at the Light Rail line along Howard Street. What truly is the economic impact?
Bill Miller January 12, 2012 at 05:27 PM
I spent a month riding modern street cars in Europe this fall and loved it. But to make a streetcar line really work takes much more than the rails and equipment. First there needs to be an adequate density of people living within several blocks of the line. Second there needs to be a frequency of service. Most of the places we were, the frequency was every six minutes and in the downtown areas, because of multiple lines, the streetcars for short trips were constant. The other factor was that streetcars and buses were given true priority so they could move quickly. Streetcars had the right-of-way over automobiles for both left and right turns. On streets with two lanes going in one direction, one lane was dedicated to public transit and taxis. Private cars just had to wait. This would require a major change in how we behave and prioritize. A streetcar run should take a maximum of fifteen minutes from the JHU Homewood Campus to downtown if one expects people to really use it. So, before we continue with the streetcar debate, perhaps we should see if a dedicated bus lane with reliable service every six minutes can be accomplished and will draw sufficient ridership. Who knows? It might do the trick.
Sean Tully January 12, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Did they stop running MTA buses from North Baltimore to downtown?
ralahinn1 January 12, 2012 at 11:26 PM
@ Sean, the MTA buses get horribly crowded certain times of the day, since most of them that pass through the area also go on to Towson and further. A trolley or even the Circulator running local would make it easier for some people to travel
Sean Tully January 13, 2012 at 03:47 AM
Why should North Baltimore get a trolley or free bus service with the Circulator when, as you say, the regular bus is "horribly crowded"? Wouldn't it be cheaper just to run additonal buses up Charles Street?
ed January 17, 2012 at 05:04 PM
The web site of the "opponents of the trolley" also know as the proponents of transportation sanity is: http://www.trolleytrouble.org/ (I have been interviewed by the author of this piece and he knows our web site. I have no idea why he gave the URL of the Trolley friends but not of its detractors. Adam: be fair!) I fail to understand why the Charles Street Development Corporation has not thrown its support behind extending the Charm City Circulator up to Hopkins University. This seems so easy and so cheap as offering everything the fixed rail, very expensive and inflexible, slower trolley line would.
ahblid January 18, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Ed, With respect, any website that relies on the error filled papers of Mr. Randall O'Toole to help decide exactly what "transportation sanity is" seriously needs to reconsider their conclusions. Sorry! I'll point out just a couple of the mistakes/misdirections from the report on Portland: "After construction began on Portland’s first light-rail line, however, cost overruns forced TriMet to raise bus fares and reduce service. By 1990, four years after the light-rail line opened, only 6.7 percent of commuters rode transit to work—less than in 1970." From page 5. As shown at the link below, in 1970 TriMet's total ridership was about 15 million annual rides. By the end of the 70's it had climbed to 35 Million, a climb that continued right through the 90's. Transit ridership did not decrease as claimed. What did decrease is transit's market share, largely due to an ever increasing population, as well as the fact that the transit district's boundaries were expanded, and transit not being expanded as fast as the population increases. "One reason for this decline is that TriMet had to make service cuts due to the 2001 recession. The high cost of new rail lines and inflexible light-rail mortgage payments forced the agency to cut deeper than would have been necessary if it operated a debt-free, bus-only system." According to data from the National Transit Database, total bus route mileage in 1999 was 22,028,699, 2000 - 22,865,790; 2001 - 22,957,607. What cuts?
ahblid January 18, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Ed, Following up on my first post, here are a few more facts about Portland. All data comes from the National Transit Database. In 2010, the average ride on a light rail train cost $2.51 with the rider paying 34.70% of that, leaving the taxpayers to pick up $1.64 per ride. The average ride on a bus costs TriMet $3.95 with the rider paying 22.78%, leaving $3.05 for the taxpayer's to pickup. Now that's operation costs and of course Mr. O'Toole and many other's say "what about the capital costs?" NTD reports on the web date back to 1996. In 1996 half of the Blue line was open, the other half had been under construction for 2 years, and it opened in 1998; the other 3 lines were all built after '96. So clearly I can't account for most of the costs of the blue line. I went to the NTD and added up all the capital costs & operating costs for both buses and light rail for the 15 year period from '96 - 2010. During those 15 years, TriMet has spent $2.914 Billion all in on buses and $2.717 Billion all in on light rail. Conclusion: when bus cuts do happen, it’s because they cost more, not because of light rail.
ed January 20, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Hi ahbild My arguments do not RELY on anything in the O'Toole papers. My arguments focus on the inadequacy of the argument given concerning the trolley in the study produced by the Charles Street Development Corporation. Respond to my key argument (from the first page of my web site: "The corridor does not need better transportation; the rest of Baltimore's transportation system needs to be improved: For the cost of the construction of the trolley, Baltimore could buy 600 Charm City Circulator type buses. Imagine what the addition of 600 green and quiet buses could do to city's transportation system, to the system which serves all of Baltimore. Imagine how little a 3.5 mile trolley will do for anybody but a small group of people living along the Charles Street Corridor. The trolley might allow Johns Hopkins to eliminate most of its private bus system that it uses to shuffle its students and employees around, it might make life easier for a few residents in Charles Village, it might get a few more tourists up to the BMA. There is speculation and wild claims by those who are pushing for the trolley that the trolley on Charles Street will cause a boom in development along its path which will in turn lead to a vast savings for Baltimore taxpayers." What possible argument can you give that the Trolley would lead to more development along the corridor than an extension of the Charm City Circulator? Ed Hopkins (And your name?)
ahblid January 20, 2012 at 06:56 PM
Ed, Then why keep those papers around? If you're not drawing conclusions from them and/or they're not supporting your argument, then there is no reason to be linking to them. As for your argument; as I alluded to in my earlier posts and as city after city is coming to realize, you don't provide better transit service by increasing the expensive buses. You add rail transportation to the mix and rework how you use those existing, expensive buses. And I'm not suggesting that buses ever go totally away. It's about having the proper balance of rail & buses. Next, you aren't going nearly as far you claim with those buses. At a total estimated cost of $156 Million to build the trolley, you'd need a per bus price of $260,000 in order to buy 600 buses. The going rate for a hybrid bus is currently about double that; for example the City of Kalamazoo is about to put the first of their new hybrids into service later this month or early next. They're spending $545,435 per bus. Even a regular, standard diesel bus is in the $350K to $400K range depending on the requirements and order size. http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2012/01/metro_transits_first_hybrid_bu.html
ahblid January 20, 2012 at 07:04 PM
And notwithstanding the input from those aforementioned papers; city after city is indeed seeing development along rail transit lines. From Portland to Phoenix to Salt Lake City to Dallas to Charlotte, NC. As an interesting side note; down in Charlotte they opened their first light rail line shortly before the gas prices spiked at over $4 per gallon in 2008. That price spike saw a record rise in the use of pubic transit around the country and even in Charlotte their all their bus routes save one saw huge growth. That one route was called the Gold Rush. Like the CCC, it was a free circulator that ran around downtown and it paralleled much of the light rail route. The Gold Rush lost ridership while every other bus route gained ridership. People were actually paying to ride the light rail as opposed to jumping onto the Free bus. And it wasn't the novelty factor either, that wears off in 2 to 3 months and light rail had opened in November 2007. Alan
ed January 21, 2012 at 12:59 PM
Alan Why not have a serious, public discussion of these issues? I would be glad to publish this on my web site--and maybe we could get Mark Counselman (Of friends of the trolley) and Kristen Speaker (Charles Street Development Corporation) to publish it or link to it. (and Patch) I think it time to revisit these issues. I am eager to lay out my objections to the trolley in a clear way and have you give a good response to them. I would also love to see you lay out the key arguments in favor of the trolley so that I could respond to them. You may make such a good case that I would become a trolley supporter. Do you want to work on such a document off line until we are both happy with it and them put it out there and let others comment on it? One major point that would need a good discussion--on both sides--would be your construal of the Charles Street Trolley as light rail. Light rail--that works, that draws ridership--does not mingle with the traffic and go only a few miles. It runs somehow isolated from traffic and is much longer. The Charles Street Trolley runs WITH traffic and will be as slow as or slower than traffic. Generally ridership increases when the mode of transportation is faster than the available means. (And I can provide a reference to support this--and not one that points to O'Toole.) But let's do this systematically and openly. I think that such a discussion would be a real public service. Ed Hopkins (ed.hopkins@verizon.net)
ahblid January 21, 2012 at 11:27 PM
Ed, I'm simply using the National Transit Database's and the FTA's definition of light rail. Trolleys are included in all totals for light rail, as well as Streetcars. Streetcars are of course the modern day trolley, while light rail represents a cross between the old trolley and what today is called heavy rail (subways & El's). Light rail can operate at higher speeds like Heavy rail, but it can also operate in the street just like a trolley car does. As for lower ridership, the Portland Streetcar as of 2011 averaged 12,000+ rides per weekday. Page #3. http://www.portlandstreetcar.org/pdf/combined_ridership_graphs_20110630.pdf Only about 1/4 mile or so at the southern end runs in a dedicated right of way. The rest of the nearly 4 mile route operates in traffic. Even the Portland light rail trains which do operate in dedicated ROW's outside of downtown run in traffic lanes while in the downtown area. Down in San Fran where they use historic trolleys on their F line, that too operates with traffic. I've seen reports of 20,000 daily riders for that line, although I do grant that line operates in a very touristy area right along the Embarcadero. Now I do agree that speed is important and one will get a better bang if one can get a higher speed and therefore a shorter travel time. But one will still get better ridership with a train than a bus, regardless of speed.
ahblid January 21, 2012 at 11:33 PM
Regarding the offer, I'll have to think on that a bit. For starters I'm not a transit expert, although I have done considerable research on it and I'm a fan of it. But I'm actually a computer/network consultant by trade. I also haven't done much of anything in terms of looking at this specific project; my initial comments were simply based upon those reports that at least IMHO you appeared to be using to support your case against the trolley.
ed January 22, 2012 at 10:49 AM
Alan I am not a transit expert either. A discussion at our level could really help educate the public about the pros and cons of the Charles Street Trolley. We can try to set up the discussion out of public view and see how it goes. If you don't like the way it comes out, we will not publish it. I really would like to see the pros and cons laid out in a clear fashion. One comment on your slant on it all: no one pushing the project regards it as a "transportation" project at all; it is regarded as a "development" project. The key argument for the trolley is that it will spur development along the Charles Street corridor--and that it will spur development vastly better than something like the Charm City Emulator. It is those rails in the ground that give it a sense of permanence that draws development--or so the promoters say. I would argue that it is very important to encourage development in Baltimore. Is the trolley the best use of limited funds for this purpose? (The Grand Prix was a bust in my opinion.) ed
ed January 22, 2012 at 12:43 PM
Alan Who are you and what connection, if any, do you have to the trolley project? I am Ed Hopkins. I live in Baltimore City in the Remington area. I got involved in the trolley project years ago when the plans were to finance the trolley by means of a surtax on people who lived close to the line. I would have been hit with the surtax. I have no connection with the Charles Street Development Corporation. I do not work for anyone. I am on the Board of Directors of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance which tries to look after the interests of the residents of the Remington neighborhood. This exchange of ideas stops here if you do not reveal your identity and your interests in the project. ed
ahblid January 24, 2012 at 12:26 AM
Ed, I only quoted ridership numbers because of your mentioning that speed was important to ridership. I honestly have no slant on things, beyond the fact that in circumstances like what is being discussed here, rail is generally superior to the bus both in terms of ridership & costs. As I said to you in an earlier post, I really haven't even looked into this project much at all; therefore it doesn't surprise me at all that the bigger driving force is for development. But I would agree that rail would spur more development than the Charm City Circulator. Both people and business tend to prefer rail over a bus. Not saying that their reasons are always logical, although some are indeed quite logical, but rail always does attract more ridership than a bus does. And while some of what has been said regarding development is indeed questionable, there is no doubt that rail does help to spur it far better than a bus. Yes, it may take some government deals like tax breaks, etc. to bring in a few big players, but then smaller business inevitably follows. And business more and more is starting to see that rail makes a difference. Four big corps up in Seattle have seen it and have put their money where their mouth is. They've ponied up $65 Million to have the City run the South Lake Union Trolley more frequently during rush hour to provide better access for employees. http://mayormcginn.seattle.gov/celebrating-new-private-funding-for-the-seattle-streetcar/
ahblid January 24, 2012 at 12:30 AM
Ed, I have no connection at all to the project; I don't even live in Baltimore. And my computer company specializes in small companies that typically employ less than 100 people. So no company that would be developing anything for this project would ever notice me or seek to use my services. My name is Alan Burden, and beyond that I'm not going to talk much more about myself in such a public forum. As a computer expert I unfortunately know all to well what can be done with too much public info on a forum such as this.


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