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June 3, 2009

Getting it right in Northern Virginia

Yglesias Think Progress blog has a good post on transit-oriented development and how it has worked in Arlington, Va.

Meanwhile, GreaterGreaterWashington reports on planning for a new Metro station in Alexandria.

Why does Maryland seem to be so far behind Northern Virginia on transit matters?

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:37 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro


I'm not sure Maryland is so far behind NoVa on transit matters. The MD DC suburbs certainly have plenty of transit options via the Metro and the MARC train is a viable alternative beyond Metro-Land. However, Baltimore is way behind DC, obviously. Part of the reason for this is that the DC Metro has gotten a ton of Federal funding for construction compared with Baltimore. But the Maryland MTA has also done a poor job of planning and implementing a comprehensive regional system to replace the streetcar system of yesteryear.

I tend to agree with Patapsco Jones; Silver Spring and Bethesda are two examples of transit oriented development that have been very successful in Maryland. Also, I think it is very safe to say that it is Arlington--not Northern Virginia, in general--that gets transit.

Remember also that metro DC, and NoVA in particular have had much higher growth rates in recent decades, compared to Baltimore, or most other regions, for that matter.

Arlington is the "4th quarter" of DC. It made sense that after the New Deal, and then the highway bridges and Metro systems were constructed that Arlington would be esp. attractive to development since it was extremely close to downtown DC, relative to Montgomery and PG counties, respectively.

Arlington residents made a decision to route the Orange Line, at their expense, underground versus a purely I-66 median alignment. That made for better TOD options.

When there's high population growth and a booming local economy, land becomes valuable quickly and development guides itself to those transit stations (where feasible, of course). Montgomery Co. had to max out its options before PG become attractive for TOD instead of simply parking.

Adding regional/rapid transit (not streetcar where there are dependent bus riders) to an new area is a great way to improve mobility and revitalize the area nearby and increase job access. But if the regional economy is extremely bad, TOD will not come quickly or often to some station areas, if ever. There's almost nothing going on at Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo and Philadelphia area stations. Basically, "it's the economy, stupid!" regarding TOD.

The views expressed here are my own

In response to Nate:

First our economy in Baltimore is not that bad off. Between the Social Security Administration facilities throughout the area, numerous & growing universities and our world class Medical Institutions which are growing at the westside biopark and eastside Johns Hopkins biotech projects, we are in a relatively good position - and poised for growth. Not to mention BRAC. Plus let's keep mind that our area already siphons off jobs from DC via our commuters and could bring more of that money up here if we provided better transit options.

The question is are we going to be able to transport people efficiently to these jobs? And are we going to hedge against rising energy costs in the future by building comprehensive transit now? Baltimore currently has the 7th highest bus ridership in the nation despite being its 20th largest city. So there is indisputably a demand. We need to put give these riders better transit options. ASAP

^I think you may have misinterpreted what I said, slightly.

I didn't say Baltimore wasn't growing, it is, but nearly as fast as DC has. The growth in sectors you mention is true, but it's still not that much compared the expansion of economies in southern and western cities. Also, our manufacturing economy continues to erode (though I think it could return some). Baltimore is certainly not Cleveland or even Pittsburgh. I really haven't seen us siphon us much from DC in terms of jobs--mostly people, but still our growth remains fairly low.

Certainly, the growth issue doesn't diminish the rationale for improving our regional transit. As I've contended more than once the current Red Line project hasn't been part of a comprehensive plan like the DC Metro. The issue above was specifically about TOD.

The views expressed here are my own.

There is no growth issue. The Baltimore city job base is growing and it needs better transit. And if you're for better transit then argue for it. Finding a way to get more people down to DC to take some of the those jobs and bring the bacon back up here with faster more reliable transit is the discussion worth having here. As is a discussion about getting people to new jobs coming from the universities and biotech in the city. Sorry if that sounds abrupt, but as we know, too many conversations about transit in Baltimore end up floating out on some tangent leading to nowhere, rather than to a better system for people to use.

Abruptness, I don't mind as I'm prone to it also. However, growth is an issue, and Baltimore's job base has ebbed and flowed in recent years, and has simply been MUCH less than DC. Downtown vacancy is still much too high to trigger plans for new office space. It's seems impossible to get a new office high rise more than 30 stories, partly because we have so few large companies headquartered here these days and don't know of any company's plans to do so. Education, health services, and milirary jobs are good, but they don't produce wealth--they consume it and our national economy has lost a lot of wealth; they're sectors, not industries. Biotech is good, but health is expensive and we need to explore other ways to keep our economy relavent. I haven't seen evidence of Baltimore City taking jobs that would otherwise be located in the District to much extent. Maybe that could change.

But to counter your point, again, this blog post was about TOD, and I'm sticking to that topic--it is an issue exclusive to arguing for better transit. I can argue for better transit and acknowledge our region's current slow growth and (non) examples of TOD in other slow growing regions. I think the growth rate needs to be acknowledged as one of the differences between Baltimore and DC in regards to TOD.

Nate Payer
The views expressed here are my own.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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