Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Not Monorail?

There was much consternation when the recommendations came out last year for the construction of the Baltimore Red Line. The line of course would be new 14-mile light rail line being constructed from Woodlawn across the city all of the way to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus. The main portion of the line that drew the most opposition was the proposed surfacing of the Red Line on Boston Street in Canton, starting with the American Can Company building. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is such a problem; the plan would put two surface lines on a heavily trafficked entryway into the city. Many large trucks that go into Fells Point, Harbor East, and downtown have to use Boston Street as their entryway into the city, for example. And that says nothing of the disruptive effects on the Canton and Highlandtown communities from the surface line, leading to efforts to oppose the Red Line in those communities.

But the Red Line plan has other problems associated with it as well. Even the concept of tunneling major sections of the line will cause a number of disruptions at an enormous cost to taxpayers.

And that leads me to ask one simple question; why not build the Red Line using Monorail?

Monorail tends to be thought of as a more exotic method of transportation that is associated with tourism moreso than transportation. Many people are familiar with the Monorail at Disney World or the one in Seattle that are short lines that do not serve a public transit purpose. Monorail is being used, however, in places such as Las Vegas to provide a relatively short public transit capability for these areas.

But would Monorail have be a practical solution for the Red Line? Perhaps. Using Monorail would not require neither expensive tunneling, nor would it require disruption of traffic on city streets. The idea of an elevated monorail that is elevated above the streets would be no worse of an eyesore than tracks going down the center of the street, and would certainly be less of an eyesore than the elevated Metrorail tracks in Owings Mills. Nor would the creation of a monorail system create delays at at-grade intersections. Intermodal connections between the existing "Blue Line" (Cromwell-Timonium Light Rail) , "Green Line" (Baltimore Metro), bus lines and MARC Trains would be no more onerous and inconvenient than the current Red Line proposal,

Is Monorail a cost-effective alternative? Perhaps, particularly when you consider that the cost of building a monorail system is would be anywhere between $14 million and $93 million a mile depending on the system, and the Red Line project as currently envisioned will cost roughly $114 million a mile. Monorail systems (believe it or not) can also be leased from the providing companies as a more cost effective way of implementing the system. The state could also (as part of my quest for privatization) consider leasing the operating rights for a monorail system to a private vendor, requiring that the Vendor construct and then operate the system at particular price.

Is Monorail the silver bullet to solving problems with the Red Line? Probably not. There are trade-offs as well as benefits to the construction of any of these public transit projects. But certainly, we owe it to ourselves as taxpayers to ask state leaders to consider all alternatives to the current Red Line project. The prohibitive costs and the disruption to communities and traffic flow (particularly in Canton) demand the consideration of alternatives that alleviate these concerns.



Klaus Philipsen said...

Monorails are more disruptive than surface transit and tunnels. They are disruptive not only during construction when essentially a continuous bridge has to be built along the entire alignment but forever after because they are hugely intrusive in the urban setting with all their posts and the enourmous efforts to get up and down at stations.(See Miami, Morgentown, parts of the Docklands train in London or the El in Chicago). During the 5 years the Red Line project has been discussed, this option was never seriously proposed.
Light Rail, by contrast, is a proven technology which can run surface and tunnel and also on elevated track where desired and has been constructed in hundreds of cities worldwide. When it runs on the surface there is indeed competition for space. Cities of the future cannot manage with just cars, thus even Houston and Phoenix built surface light rail lines. Surface transit is easy to access and provides the pleasure of riding through the city with daylight and views. Why should transit riders be relegated to tunnels and the air just so trucks and cars can have the streets to themselves?
(BTW, trucks are prohibited on Boston Street.In Highlandtown the line runs on old frieght right of way and the communities there did masterplanning around the station in support of the project)
Klaus Philipsen, AIA

Nate said...

Indeed, light rail is not appropriate for the Red Line, esp. with the currently prefered alignment, and therefore other options and alternatives must be considered.

However, monorail as is not appropriate for most mass transit,although for somewhat different reasons than Mr. Philipsen suggests. The fundamental problem with monorails is that they have poor ability to switch tracks during emergency crossovers and track maintenance. To do so, trains move slowly and the "beams" require constant and expensive maintenance. A regional/rapid transit system MUST be able to switch tracks easily and regularly. Moreover, this is related to their second problem: the difficulty in constructing a branhing-line system. Most of the better regional rail transit sytems have a truck and branch topology which allows different lines to switch and merge and change services. Monorails requires slow, and sometimes rotating beams to accomplish what conventional steal rail can do with much less effort and reliability.

Monorails are primarily a niche technology, most appropriate for circular or loop-type service, or as a shuttle with one vehicle or consist moving back and forth between 2 destinations.

Monorails can sometimes have a narrower profile than conventional rail, but the right-of-way for that is still very narrow in SE Baltimore not to have a large impact.

Nevertheless, simply because rail is elevated doesn't make it inappropriate, per se, or by default make surface better. There are many places where elevated is appropriate and looks good. By and large, the El in Chicago and the Metro in Miami integrate quite well (unlike the old Els in NYC). Somehow, many New Urbanists' have the philosophy that any elevated is bad at any time for any reason, in any place. I also don't find the reason to built on the surface so that it can "provide the pleasure of riding through the City with daylight and views". The goal is to provide a reliable, high-speed regional transit system. If one wants to see the view, he can walk, bike, drive, taxi, take the bus--any other mode than the rapid transit in the tunnel (or elevated bridge).

Now more than ever, a "segment by segment" approach to building our rail system would enable Baltimore to successfully build its transit system affordably by building high-grade projects with the money available. We can start by extending our existing Metro eastward towards Bayview.

Nate Payer