A federal agency has given the green light to a preliminary phase of Maryland's plans for a Hunt Valley extension of the central light rail line, despite questions about that leg's projected ridership.
The U.S. Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) gave the state permission to proceed with preliminary engineering work on the four-mile extension, which would meet the main line in Timonium in Baltimore County.
The main line, which is being paid for by the state, runs 22.5 miles from Timonium through Baltimore and south to Dorsey Road in Glen Burnie. The state plans to open most of the main line next spring, with the rest of the system opening later.
Although UMTA's decision helps the project move forward, the federal agency cautioned that it has not committed itself to helping Maryland pay for the $36 million Hunt Valley extension.
The federal agency has been beset by a "rather overwhelming" demand for such money from transit agencies nationwide, explained a Sept. 3 letter from UMTA Administrator Brian W. Clymer to Ronald J. Hartman, chief of Maryland's Mass Transit Administration.
In addition, "approval to commence preliminary engineering work does not in itself constitute a commitment to finance the capital project," Clymer's letter continued.
"I therefore encourage you to act in your own interest as you undertake preliminary engineering, by taking whatever steps you can, within the framework of our evaluation system, to improve the cost-effectiveness of the Hunt Valley extension," Clymer stated.
Cost-effectiveness is a measure of how well a project returns benefits in relation to its cost. UMTA looks at the cost, the expected number of riders and other alternatives to a project.
A May 1991 federal report said the Hunt Valley extension "does not rate well" when compared to an UMTA cost-effectiveness standard and to other transportation projects vying for federal funds.
UMTA is concerned that the number of light rail riders may be too low. Although the cost of the Hunt Valley extension is "relatively low," the segment, if built, would carry fewer than 700 new riders, the report said.
Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer has characterized the cost-effectiveness issue as an "honest difference of opinion" between state and federal transportation officials about the efficacy of the Hunt Valley leg.
The ridership figures are fairly conservative and do not include fans who would ride the light rail line to Oriole games in downtown Baltimore, Hartman said.
Some state legislators, however, are not enthused about the cost of the Hunt Valley leg in light of Maryland's continuing serious budget difficulties.
A joint committee of senators and delegates last month recommended that the state save money by not building the Hunt Valley extension.
State officials should investigate the possibility of using the $27 million that the federal government might chip in for the Hunt Valley leg for another part of the light rail line, the committee advised.
Most likely, Hartman said, the state would not be allowed to obtain money for the Hunt Valley leg and then spend it on another part of the line.
The federal government has agreed to pay 75 percent of the approximately $500,000 cost of preliminary engineering work, said state MTA spokesman Jacqueline B. Moore.
That phase involves devising cost estimates, performing some design work and completing a final environmental impact study, she said.
A Ruxton-area group plans to review UMTA's recent decision to determine if it violates federal environmental law and to file suit if a violation is detected, said Joseph J. McGovern, an attorney for the Robert E. Lee Park Defense Fund.
The line will run through the 500-acre park.
People who live near the park challenged the light-rail project in court last year, saying transportation officials failed to perform a detailed environmental impact study of the entire line.
A federal appeals court, however, refused to order the construction stopped.