Baltimore Metro generates fans, if not crowds


November 04, 1990|By Doug Birch

When Lynette Player, a 32-year-old state employee, got on the Baltimore Metro at 8:22 a.m. last Thursday, she found something that probably would have been impossible to find on many subway lines in New York, Chicago or Washington at the height of rush hour.

She found a seat. In fact, when she stepped aboard the southbound Metro car No. 111 at Rogers Avenue, she had her pick of about 50 of the 80 padded brown seats.

Ms. Player, who works at the state office complex on Preston Street, loves the Metro, which is clean, safe, punctual and zips her to work in about 15 minutes.

So she frowned at the suggestion that the rail line might be less than successful because more people don't ride it.

"One day last week it was tremendously crowded," she pointed out, recalling that at least four people had to stand. Of course, she added, that crowd was caused by a rare delay related to equipment problems. Usually, she said, the trains are about two-thirds full by the time she reaches the State Center station.

The Baltimore Metro's rush-hour crowds -- or their absence -- have became part of the national debate between rail critics and supporters over whether new subway and light-rail systems are effective ways to solve transportation problems.

Don H. Pickrell of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., included Baltimore in a 1989 study that questioned the accuracy of the forecasts made by cities and states seeking federal money to build multimillion-dollar subway and light-rail systems.

The study, "Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership Costs," claimed to show, among other things, that the first eight-mile segment of the 14-mile Baltimore Metro cost 95 percent more than anticipated and, as of 1987, was carrying about 60 percent fewer riders than predicted. Fares, it reported, covered only about 22 percent of operating costs.

Mr. Pickrell's report was widely criticized by transit officials nationwide for alleged bias and inaccuracy. Several pointed out that long-range forecasts are risky, at best: Few people predicted, for example, that gasoline prices would fall through most of the 1980s.

Ronald J. Hartman, administrator of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, said that the study erred in using figures from grant applications and other documents prepared in 1972 and 1974, when the Baltimore Metro was expected to cover about 28 miles of track, not just the 14 eventually built.

Citing documents prepared later than those used by Mr. Pickrell, Mr. Hartman said the system cost 9 percent more than expected, not 95 percent. He called the 22 percent fare-box figure a fantasy -- saying the MTA does not keep separate statistics on Metro operating costs.

He also said the Metro's average of fewer than 50,000 riders daily was actually several thousand more riders than expected -- citing a prediction made shortly before the second, six-mile segment of the line opened between Reisterstown Road and Owings Mills in 1987.

But it is clear that the Metro is carrying fewer passengers than was expected before it opened. As late as 1983, David A. Wagner, then MTA administrator, predicted that daily patronage would rise as high as 82,000 when the full 14-mile line opened -- an opening that took place in 1987.

Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that reviews transportation projects, is philosophical.

"So what do you want to do?" he asked. "Turn it into a convention center? That decision's been made. . . . Was it the best decision? I'm not so sure."

The Metro could still attract crowds someday, he said, if it becomes part of a much larger network.

"The reason the Washington Metro is so successful is that it's so extensive, but it took an enormous investment to get that way," he said.

Delegate Maloney also said the planned opening of a 1.5-mile extension to Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1994 would help fill Metro cars.

A spokesman for the MTA said last week that planners expect the line to add 6,800 daily riders -- a 15 percent increase in overall patronage -- by the year 2005.

To serve those riders, and extend the current system's reach, the state and federal government are spending $321.6 million.

In a letter to The Sun dated Oct. 25, Mr. Hartman wrote "Ridership and cost measures are absolutely critical in making decisions about major transportation investments. . . . But there are other factors less convenient to quantify -- impacts on air quality, energy consumption, and development and simply providing alternative, convenient means for people to travel. Unfortunately, it is tough to place numbers on these measures."

Mr. Pickrell declined to respond publicly to criticism of his report.

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