David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
In 1987, the Maryland Transit Administration busted out a brass band to open a subway that never had a chance.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
Ah, the sultry promise of a new subway station in a Baltimore summer.
It’s July 19, 1987, and there’s a brass band baking in the sun as Maryland dignitaries fan themselves at the grand opening of the latest extension of Baltimore’s Metro. This was to be the first of many additions to the city’s heavy-rail system that, like Washington, D.C.,’s Metro, was planned in the 1960s in part as a means of arresting the white flight and suburbanization then draining the city of population and resources.
Unlike the D.C. Metro, however, Baltimore Metro (more recently redubbed Baltimore Metro SubwayLink) never quite got its act together. Conceived as a hub-and-spoke network spreading out to the surrounding suburbs, its first eight-mile-long leg from the city’s northwest suburbs to Charles Center downtown opened—on time and on budget—in 1983, with a six-mile extension further out to the Owings Mills Mall coming a few years later, in 1987.
That’s the occasion celebrated by this overly optimistic promotional video, The Metro: “Going Your Way,” from the Maryland Transit Administration. Opening, as all films produced in 1987 must, with a blast of synthesizers and MTV-style jump-cuts, the 10-minute short offers a glimpse into a vanished political and cultural landscape. In it, Republican Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley promises to “to fight for funds for urban mass transit so that Baltimore will thrive,” while an older lady with a serious Bawlmer accent enthuses about taking the subway to “go downtown to do my shopping and marketing.” There are also several sweaty electeds noting that it’s just the beginning of the “largest public project in the history of Maryland.” The subway will race on, the video promises, growing ridership and usefulness as it reaches “all parts of the Baltimore metro area.”
That didn’t happen. One more extension did come, in 1995—a short tunnel east across downtown to link up Johns Hopkins University’s hospital complex. But little has lately been said of the “Green Line” that would extend back up to the city’s northeastern reaches, to complete the U-shape that the Metro’s first line was supposed to assume. Instead, only half of this single spoke was completed. Epic political squabbles killed off the others, as suburban areas pushed back and transit money got tight. The planned north-to-south heavy rail line became a poky light rail project in the 1990s, to save some cash; the east-to-west Red Line was killed off in 2015, when Republican Governor Larry Hogan turned down $900 million in federal transit funding and cancelled the long-planned project. Rail fans in Baltimore have had precious little to celebrate since that sunny day in 1987.
The Metro itself endures, though the entire system was closed for emergency repairs for several weeks last year. In 2018, it averaged fewer than 18,000 riders on a weekday—in the video, the MTA boasts of expecting more than 45,000. But it is indeed a blazingly fast way to get downtown. And, belatedly, it may finally be attracting more reasons to exist, now that the long-dying mall at its suburban terminus is gone: A new urban-style transit-oriented mixed-use complex has appeared in its stead, offering a new generation of riders a chance to take advantage of those 1980s-vintage subway cars. They’re all still shiny.