Subways That Never Were: Baltimore

If you’re from Baltimore, you might be looking at the title right now and thinking “what? We do have a subway”, and yes, you do. The Baltimore Metro Subway opened in 1983, and runs from Owings Mills in the northwest to Johns Hopkins Hospital at the eastern edge of downtown. What you may not know, however, is that the Metro Subway as it exists today was meant to be only the first part of a six-corridor network, centred on Charles Center and serving the entire metropolitan area.

In the 1960s, as the population of Baltimore were moving out into the suburbs, the city faced something of a traffic crisis; as in many other American cities, highways into downtown were planned to ease congestion. However, neighboring Washington was taking a different path, planning a large system of rapid transit lines to draw people out of their cars as they entered the city. The city council of Baltimore clearly preferred this idea, and appointed a commission to plan out a similar system for their city. The commission received federal research funding, and released its report in July of 1968.

Map of the proposed Regional Rapid Transit System.

Map of the proposed Regional Rapid Transit System.

The report called for the construction of a 71-mile system of six lines (corridors), converging at Charles Center:

– The South Line, with two branches ending at BWI and Marley;

– The West Line, ending at Chalfonte Drive in Catonsville;

– The Northwest Line, ending at Randallstown;

– The North Line, ending at Timonium;

– The Northeast Line, ending at Joppa-Belair in Perry Hall;

– and finally, the Southeast line, with two branches ending at Sparrows Point and at Marlyn Avenue in Essex.

The city council approved of the plan, as did the Maryland state government, and a centralised Maryland Transportation Authority (MTA) was created to coordinate buses and commuter rail in the state as well as make plans for the construction of the Baltimore rapid transit system. In 1971, the MTA made official its plans to construct what it called Phase 1, consisting of slightly reworked versions of the Northwest and South lines. The northwestern terminus was moved from Randallstown to Owings Mills, and the branch to BWI was eventually redesigned to be encompassed in the single line. The plan was for this system to be completed by 1978, after which the remaining lines would go through the same process.

The original Phase 1 plan. Note that this is before the south line was revised.

The original Phase 1 plan. Note that this is before the south line was revised.

The South Line was opposed by residents of the affluent, mostly-white Anne Arundel County, because they feared racial integration and increased crime would come out of connecting them to the poorer African-American northwest of the city. There were also serious problems funding construction on the line, and these factors combined to ensure that when construction started at the end of 1976, everything south of Charles Center had been taken out of the proposal.

When the newly-christened Baltimore Metro Subway opened on November 21, 1983 between Charles Center and Reisterstown Plaza, it was a shell of the original plan, with only eight (8) revenue miles of track compared to the 24 originally planned for Phase 1 and the 71 contained in the commission’s plan, and though it has since been extended to Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins Hospital for a “grand total” of 15,5 miles and supplemented by a single light rail line, the Baltimore Metro Subway is still woefully inadequate to service a metropolitan area of nearly three million.

A train on the Baltimore Metro Subway, 1983. This rolling stock is still used today.

A train on the Baltimore Metro Subway, 1983. This rolling stock is still used today.

But what if the system proposed in 1968 had actually been built in full? Well, this is highly unlikely given the funding problems faced by the Metro throughout its existence, but assuming it did we might see the city’s decline slowed, as was the case in Washington, and while it wouldn’t aid integration (it certainly hasn’t in Washington) it wouldn’t do much to increase crime either. We’d see the many neighbourhoods of Baltimore tied together by the rails, and a means of travelling around the city without a car. We might even see Frank Sobotka taking the train to work.

The complete Metro network, as per the original plan.

The complete Metro network, as per the original plan.

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