Light rail naysayers are off the track

Robert Keller

March 05, 1991|By Robert Keller

THEY'RE baaaack!

The naysayers determined to derail every program, project or idea that would position Baltimore as a world-class community are out in force . . . once again.

A decade ago, they argued that a festival marketplace might be fine for a cosmopolitan city like Boston but would never work in quaint blue-collar Baltimore. Some naysayers continued to posit future failure even as Harborplace celebrated its 10th anniversary last summer.

A couple of years later, they were again out in large numbers, contending that spending money to build a convention center in downtown Baltimore was a bad investment. Baltimore should be satisfied with attracting the handful of tour buses that arrived each week, plus a few second-tier conferences, the naysayers said.

A stubborn lot, the naysayers continue to question Baltimore's attractiveness as a destination for conventioneers and tourists even though tax revenues derived by the Baltimore Convention Center far exceed even the most optimistic forecasts of its supporters. As debate gets under way in Annapolis over the merits of expanding the center, the naysayers continue to trill their message of pessimistic "realism."

But reality rarely impresses the true naysayer. Even as the superstructure rises from the ground for the new baseball stadium in Camden Yards, the naysayers continue to challenge the project.

Now, the Central Corridor Light Rail Line has been targeted by a group of naysayers in Baltimore County. In true naysayer fashion, the Northern Light Rail Community Coalition argues that it's still not too late for the state to stop construction of the 27-mile-long line due to stretch from Glen Burnie through downtown Baltimore and north to Hunt Valley.

True, the naysayers were given a helping hand 15 months ago when the Mass Transit Administration revealed that the $290 million original cost estimate for the modern-day trolley line had mushroomed nearly 50 percent to $446 million. Such a cost overrun, before construction had begun, brought a pause even to the line's most enthusiastic adherents.

That chink in the armor encouraged the naysayers to continue the battle against the project even as construction got under way. Indeed, more than $100 million already has been committed or spent on the line. The cars have been ordered. Track has been laid and MTA officials confidently insist service will begin by spring 1992.

In the face of that reality, the naysayers push on. They have hired two lobbyists to walk the legislative halls of Annapolis, desperately trying to reopen debate on a decision legislators made two years ago and reaffirmed just last year. They also have enlisted the services of a consultant who, in true consultant fashion, produced an array of statistics, complete with bar graphs.

Some of the naysayers' numbers are impressive, at least until one takes a closer look. For instance, they trumpet that light rail will cost between $50,000 and $75,000 for each new rider, certainly an outrageous sum by any measure. But, this presumes that each rider takes one trip one time only in a lifetime. As with any major transportation project, light rail is built to be used for many years by many travelers many times. Using this line of reasoning, money spent maintaining, resurfacing or replacing an existing roadway is unjustified because so few new motorists would be served.

Similarly, the opponents won concessions from the MTA to lower the 50 mph top speed of the light rail system, then used the lower speeds to argue that MTA grossly underestimated the time it will take for the trip from downtown to Hunt Valley.

In much the same way, the group sought to block the line in court, in the process endangering federal funding for the project. Then it contended that there would be no federal contribution to the project. In fact, $2.5 million in federal funds already have been received for planning and engineering studies and Congress has committed another $17 million toward construction.

While the naysayers may sincerely question whether the light rail line makes sense, their real motivation appears to be their aversion to having a trolley line -- and the people who will be riding it -- pass through their communities. They suggest running the line up the median of the Jones Falls Expressway, even though that could add $100 million to the cost of the project. Or, alternatively, have the line end in Mt. Washington, they propose.

Despite the best efforts of the naysayers to befuddle and confuse, the Central Corridor Light Rail Line continues to be an investment worth making. It will take tens of thousands of people off our congested highways. It will offer a real opportunity for city-based workers to reach jobs in the region's two fastest-growing suburban employment centers. It will provide alternatives to costly and over-crowded parking downtown for Orioles fans.

None of this is likely to persuade the naysayers, however, who would much rather concentrate on why things won't work.

Robert Keller is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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