Baltimore light rail.  Image by AndrewHome licensed under Creative Commons.

After much debate, Baltimore is funding a massive, mixed-use $5.5 billion development on a formerly-industrial waterfront area called Port Covington. Sagamore Development Co., the real estate arm of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, is building out 260 acres of hotels, shops, restaurants, and apartment buildings around a new corporate campus in the southern part of the city.

Debate has raged locally over many aspects of the plan, including its government funding streams and worries that the project to do little to benefit some city residents. However, comparatively little attention has been paid to Sagamore’s transportation requests: the expansion of I-95 exits, and a spur from the central light rail line.

Image by Sagamore Development Company.

What is Port Covington?

Over the next two decades, Sagamore's ambitious plan would completely transform the 260-acre area around its new campus. Supporters say the project will help city residents by creating thousands of jobs and revitalizing a new section of the city's waterfront.

Critics point to the massive subsidy given to Sagamore, arguing the funds are much more needed in other areas and predicting the project will exacerbate the economic divide in Baltimore. The company has requested a total $1.1 billion from local, state and federal governments to boost infrastructure in the area, including the $660 million bond deal from the city.

The Port Covington plan calls for veritable skyscrapers and the creation of whole city blocks in an area with practically zero existing density, so transportation improvements are a necessity. Building rail transportation is often a lengthy process, and the city spent over a decade planning the canceled Red Line. However, the light rail spur appeared on last year’s Port Covington masterplan without much fanfare and is now on its way to finding federal funding.

Crabbing off an old dock near Port Covington in 1973. Image by By Jim Pickerell licensed under Creative Commons.

Image by Sagamore Development Company.

The problem with the light rail extension

As planned, the line dead-ends in the middle of the company campus without any sort of big-picture connection to other city transportation plans – neither the 2002 Baltimore Regional Rail System Plan nor this year’s BaltimoreLink system launch contain any reference to it.

The existing light rail spur to Penn Station opened a few years after the system’s initial launch with a federal grant, much like this new proposal. It is used to run a short-distance shuttle to Camden Station and serves a crucial role in the system. However, it was constructed on a single track and reaches a dead end inside Penn Station, making extending it further north (to serve say, Johns Hopkins University or Towson) difficult without a complete reconstruction.

The Port Covington extension appears primed to mirror the same problem, terminating on the campus well to the south of the existing population centers in Federal Hill, Riverside, and Locust Point, and without the potential to serve the rest of the peninsula in the future.

Proposed light rail extension in dark blue. Image by Sagamore Development Company.

Over 1,500 completed and proposed additional housing units are represented in yellow (not to mention the proposed 7,500 at the Port Covington campus), while major attractions are denoted in red. The proposed light rail spur (light blue) wouldn't come close. Image by the author.

What Baltimore could do instead

Happily, the right-of-way to complete a more extensive South Baltimore light rail spur already exists, including a Conway Street and Key Highway alignment. The latter separates the neighborhoods from the Inner Harbor with up to seven lanes in some spots, and the existing light rail cars could easily fit within a median. This extension would help to serve some of the densest and fastest-growing areas of the city.

Harborplace, the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Industry, and the Maryland Science Center are nearby, as well as massive mixed-use developments including 414 Light and 1100 Key Highway. The area is already overwhelmed and will likely become more so with Under Armour setting up a more permanent shop.

If stops at the Inner Harbor, Cross Street, and Fort Avenue were created along with the two planned stations using the McComas Street alignment, thousands more people would have improved transit access to this burgeoning area, and the entire peninsula would be less reliant on parking.

Under Armour has promised to reach out to the communities across the Patapsco River to the south and west during the planning process. A full build-out would be more useful and engaging than the proposed spur, which hits a separate dead-end in Port Covington. An alternative could continue through the existing stations in Westport (where Under Armour head Kevin Plank also owns a large plot of land) and Cherry Hill on the way to BWI Airport. With a pedestrian bridge already planned, adding light rail could produce something akin to Portland’s innovative Tilikum Crossing, which allows access to transit vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians but not to private cars and trucks.

Let's do this right the first time

A complete South Baltimore light rail spur may be necessary to manage the growth that Under Armour will likely bring to the peninsula. Here’s hoping the city, state, and federal governments consider how the project fits into a long-term vision before funding another top-down corporate decision. If there’s going to be a light rail extension, let’s do it in a way that encourages inclusive growth.