Heavyweight hopes ride on light rail's April debut

December 29, 1991|By Peter Jensen

From where Jim Day stands -- a spot, incidentally, where only a select few have yet ventured -- he can look up to a breathtaking view of Baltimore's skyline from the Inner Harbor to the city's new baseball stadium.

But what really commands this 42-year-old engineer's attention is beneath him: the parallel lines of steel under his feet. In a matter of weeks, electric light rail cars will be testing out this railroad track on the Middle Branch Bridge, and there is still much fine-tuning to be done.

Soon, he is convinced, the image of sleek, European-style trains carrying passengers across this 4,200-foot concrete span over the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River will come to symbolize Baltimore -- practical but ambitious, a marriage of waterfront and technology, old and new.

"It's going to be something," predicted Mr. Day, a Catonsville resident and self-described "rail buff." "I was here before anyone put the first shovel to it. It seems like we just got started."

Like model railroad enthusiasts eager to parade their miniature trains, signal crossings and elaborate scenery by their neighbors, those responsible for Baltimore's $446.3 million Central Light Rail Line can't wait to show it off.

In just 99 days, they'll get their chance. On April 6, the Orioles' opening day in their new ballpark, the state Mass Transit Administration plans to offer limited service from Timonium to Camden Yards, a 13-mile portion of the project that is scheduled to open full-time in May.

Later in the spring or early in the summer, 3.2 additional miles -- south from Camden Yards to Patapsco Avenue at the city line -- will open for business. In early 1993, the 5.6-mile segment from Patapsco Avenue south to Dorsey Road in Glen Burnie should be completed, bringing the total system to 22.5 miles.

As of last week, MTA officials pronounced the light rail line three-quarters complete. Track has been laid from Timonium to Patapsco Avenue. Crews have been stringing the catenary, the overhead lines that provide the 750 volts of direct current necessary to power the electric motors on each car.

Except for landscaping, lighting, ticket machines and covered benches, the 24 stations have been built. The first cars have arrived, and a 1 1/2 -mile stretch of track from North Avenue to the Woodberry station has served as their test track.

To older Baltimoreans, the system will be reminiscent of the city trolley line that shut down in 1963, except that the Scandinavian-made cars are larger and faster. The 95-foot-long cars are white with a blue stripe and are hinged in the middle to handle curves better. They travel up to 55 mph but will average 35; the trip from Timonium to the stadium is expected to take 30 minutes.

A rider's first impressions are that the cars are quiet -- thanks to electric motors -- but that their interiors are plain: stainless steel fixtures and blue woven cloth on bucket seats. The 28-inch leg space will be a bit tight for taller riders.

To enter or exit, passengers must press a button to open the car's pneumatic doors. And, as on a bus, riders must touch an overhead strip to tell the driver they want to get off at the next station.

Fares will be the same as for the city's buses: a $1.10 base fare and up to 25 cents more for longer rides, although officials are considering imposing a flat fare instead. Fare collection will be on the honor system. Riders caught freeloading by roving transit police officers could be subject to hefty fines, however.

A sense of practicality pervades the system's design. At $15.5 million a mile when the system is complete, light rail is considered cost-effective mass transportation, and state officials say Baltimore's system will be bare-bones and relatively low-tech.

Spare highway signs were used to post speed limits along the route. Trains are dispatched, monitored and driven by people rather than computers.

Planners are particularly proud that it has been only four years since Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveiled plans for the system, a fast track for a public works project of this magnitude.

"Maybe we'll regret something down the line, but I think we've done it the right way," said Ronald J. Hartman, the state's mass transit administrator. "We've tried to do this like the private sector. A shopping mall goes up 18 months after a groundbreaking."

Nevertheless, the light rail line has not been without its controversies. Mass transit officials initially expected it to cost $290 million -- a bad underestimate rather than a cost overrun, they say.

State gasoline tax and motor vehicle fees provided much of the financing. Federal financing was awarded only for the line's final phase, including connections to Hunt Valley in the north, to Penn Station in downtown Baltimore and to Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Anne Arundel County. Those connections are scheduled to be finished in 1994, bringing the project's total length to 29.5 miles.

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