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Joseph F. Consoli: Baltimore needs an economic development master plan 

Without a doubt, transportation is an industry that will undergo tremendous change in the next decade and beyond. Planning and zoning officials, as well as developers across the country, are all grappling with one primary question: With the advent of driverless cars, and possibly trucks and drones, what will happen to the current “paved roadway and highway footprints” moving people and products?  For now, planners may need to identify where the future density of people will be rather than solve for the connections between them.

Future people movement will require less vehicles and less infrastructure to alleviate traffic congestion and, more importantly, achieve time-travel efficiencies. Product distribution, by contrast, is now achieving higher maritime commerce efficiencies due to Panamax; the broadening and deepening of the Panama Canal is allowing a higher volume of goods into the Eastern Seaboard, including Baltimore. One of the greatest looming questions by the Maryland Port Authority is: Will Baltimore’s aging infrastructure be able to handle the volume?

Meanwhile, local governments need to work in concert to take what was an intergovernmental designed, funded and developed interstate highway system in the 1950s-60s and the remains of an even older rail system and create an intermodal system of multiple modes (water, rail, highway) to move people to jobs and products to consumers.

Unfortunately, the words “transportation” and “transit” have different connotations by different generations and socio-economic strata of Americans. Transportation is typically associated by many with independently driven cars that do not require intermodal transportation generally, but not exclusively. Some well-to-do citizens think of “transit” as either expensive high-speed trains or a crime-ridden light rail or  subway. Many middle-income citizens think of transit as the MARC system or the light rail system. And, due to the lack of available rail transit, except for the Baltimore’s northwest corridor, the remaining people think transit is bus service where some bus lines are chock-full of people and others have very limited riders.

The Baltimore region has historically failed due to its lack of action or poor decision-making on transportation issues, both transit and highways. Specifically, Baltimore has missed opportunity after opportunity to develop better transportation systems inside the Beltway, such as highways that stop short of their original master plan alignments, a robust  subway system, or a more extensive “lighter” rail system that could operate intermodally. But Baltimore may possess the greatest opportunity to superimpose the future innovation to come.

For instance, the Washington’s Metro system was not meant to be intermodal but intramodal, which is why officials are having difficulty renovating and retrofitting it after 40-plus years of use. Baltimore, meanwhile, can make intermodal its mantra in moving people and can start by investing in synergistic links. CSX, for example, is reconsidering the height increase to the Howard Street Tunnel for “double stacking” to handle the added containment volume coming through the Port Baltimore, making Baltimore comparable with other cities. This tunnel project is an arguably the most significant “product distribution” intrastate and interstate infrastructure project needed for the future of Baltimore.

Interjurisdictional and intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration, similar to what existed during the Eisenhower administration for the “master planned” highway and interstate system, does not really exist today. But we need a 21st-century master plan with the current and envisioned technology to revamp and transform our transportation infrastructure.

The problem is this transformation is hampered by the bifurcated authorities in the state’s designing and funding infrastructure and the counties/city controlling property land uses. The Maryland Department of Transportation performs statewide planning and garners primarily federal funding with lower state or local matching funds, while local municipalities retain planning and zoning parochial authorities. The separate authorities do not align well, disallowing many high-density transportation centers from occurring as part of a regional system. Most support clustering and Smart Growth development called TODs, or Transit-Oriented Districts. Curiously, the city recently established TOD zoning categories with its Transform Baltimore program without the expected results. More carrot-like incentives need to be imbued within the public policies to encourage transformation.

The solution is a long-term master plan to revamp and transform the area’s current transportation system to accommodate future “product distribution” and “people movement” to minimize trips and travel time. The long-term plan should also consider their collocation possibilities and call these epicenters People-Oriented District stations (PODs) and Distribution-Oriented Transfer stops (DOTs). The bifurcation of transportation planning and funding and land-use planning and zoning at several intergovernmental levels will require enabling, collaborative legislation to underwrite and facilitate a 21st century transportation system.

Joseph F. Consoli is a principal with iRealty Research. He can be reached at ircinc1@verizon.net.