If You Build It, They Will Come

DANIEL BERGER

March 28, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

Build a stadium, said the movie ''Field of Dreams,'' and the people will come. If you don't believe it, stick around after April 6.

Same for highways. Build a beltway in the desert, and in 20 years it will be inadequate. So much will have been built to exploit access, that the road will no longer do.

Creators of transportation can never decide whether to build where demand is, to relieve congestion, or where it isn't, to spur development. They compromise with a bit of both.

The Baltimore Metro was built through the densest part of town, West Baltimore, to meet a social need, and out into northwestern Baltimore County where there was little but farms and a factory or two.

Build a Metro and they will come. Anyone driving to Owings Mills shopping mall or offices or town-houses is paying tribute with his auto to the Metro, about which those things cluster.

These thoughts are prompted by the opening in recession-plagued Baltimore of two public works projects of great potential. One is Oriole Park at Camden Yards (soon to be known simply as The Stadium, no matter what we are instructed to call it). The other is the light-rail line.

Anyone who does not know why Baltimore with a perfectly good stadium needed a new one will soon find out. Its sight lines are wonderful, its pricey seats are realistic about the width of the bottoms of folks who can afford them, its revenue generation is unbelievable, its clubhouses are worthy of $6-million-a-year men. the pitching holds up, tickets will be scarce as free baseballs.

But what about the light rail, which debuts with the stadium at game time and for commuters in May? The same principle applies. Build a light rail and they will come. Even if you make it difficult.

The mental picture of old tram cars at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum is wrong. Each so-called car looks like two joined at the middle, which swivels, and holds 200 people including standers. Up to three cars may be strung together, carting 600. (Any more would be longer than a Howard Street block.) Most of the line is on exclusive right-of-way with few grade crossings.

So the feeling is more of commuter train than old Baltimore

trolley. The Metro gets from Reisterstown Plaza to Lexington Market in 14 minutes. From Mount Washington to Lexington Market, the light rail needs only four minutes longer.

But there are catches. The Metro was built in town, where the riders were. The light rail is built where the right-of-way is. Much cheaper and quicker to build, but not many people live near it.

Much of it along the Jones Falls is down a steep hill from where anyone might live. Several communities where it ought to stop won't have it.

And so logical spots for stops -- Cross Keys and Ruxton -- don't have them. The stop for Western and Polytechnic high schools is south of Cold Spring Lane, meaning the students will jay-walk across it. Except in Lutherville and Timonium, little parking is provided.

The Mass Transit Administration knows about this. It was told by Governor Schaefer to build it now. If you build a light rail, people will come. The Glen Burnie folks who blocked the Metro a generation ago crave the light rail now. The Cross Keys and Ruxton people will be sorry when the train won't stop. When they repent and beg, stations can be provided.

The best example of building-it-and-they-will-come was the stretch of I-95 north of the Beltway to its I-395 ending at the Baltimore Convention Center (before the Fort McHenry Tunnel linked it to I-95 north). This wonderful expressway entrance to Baltimore was under-used.

Now the new stadium nestles between it and the Russell Street debouch of the Baltimore Washington Expressway. And will jam them both.

Great attention is being paid to the traffic problems of people trying to go to the stadium, less to people trying not to. When stadium events coincide with the rush hour to Washington, watch out! The limos for BWI from downtown hotels go right into Russell Street.

The stadium was located next to highways of excess capacity, and will make them inadequate at game times. How long before we need to build a third expressway from downtown south?

The stadium and light rail are this recession's answer to the public works of the Great Depression. Their construction employed people. They make Baltimore greater. They are good news, coming just when we needed some.

0 Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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