Overcrowding faces light rail at outset, officials fear Already, too many are projected to use limited service for ballgames.

April 01, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Some baseball fans might be shut out when Baltimore's new light-rail line opens for limited service to Oriole home games, beginning with Friday's exhibition at Camden Yards.

State transportation officials say they've had so many inquiries about the Central Light Rail Line from Oriole fans that they fear the system won't be able to handle Friday's crush. As a result, they're warning people not to take light rail to games at first, and they're keeping buses on standby to make sure fans aren't stranded.

"We're worried that the crowds on light rail will be so great that more people will show up than can be easily accommodated," says David W. Chapin, a state transportation official who coordinates traffic planning around the new ballpark.

"If you want to get to the ballpark by rail, you should take Metro."

The 13-mile section of light-rail line from Timonium to Camden Yards has two obvious limitations. The first is a lack of parking.

Only four stops along the line are served by free parking lots with a combined 1,200 spaces. Metro, by contrast, has about 8,000 free spaces on its route downtown from Owings Mills.

Timonium offers 850 parking spaces, but the other three stops have tiny lots that will fill quickly: Lutherville with 160 spaces, Falls Road, 75, and Mount Washington, 75. Eleven stops have no designated parking areas.

The second problem is capacity. So far, only 14 rail cars are in working order. A 15th has been delivered and is being tested for possible use this weekend. Each car can seat 84 people while another 116 can stand in the aisles, for a total of 200.

But even more limiting is the single set of tracks over 40 percent of the line. That means northbound trains must be timed around southbound trains. In addition, potential delays could occur as the rail cars travel along Howard Street, where they compete with automobiles, pedestrians and stoplights.

The bottom line: No matter how many cars are put into the system, the trains can run no more frequently than once every 15 minutes. On that timetable, light rail can move only four trains each hour to and from the ballpark.

That's a total of 1,600 people an hour one way if passengers are packed cheek-to-cheek in two-car trains. That's far below the capacity of the city's subway system, which runs northwest from Charles Center to Owings Mills and can handle 10,000 passengers an hour.

During peak travel times, light-rail capacity may be increased by adding a third car. But the Mass Transit Administration is hesitant to do so until operators are more experienced.

"We are telling people it's limited service to the ballgame, and the system doesn't really open until May," says James F. Buckley, assistant general manager of the MTA. "You never like to disappoint people, but we want people to have a reasonable expectation."

MTA officials insist that the $446.3 million, 22.5-mile light-rail system was designed to be expandable. Officials want to run dual tracks everywhere and create larger parking facilities, but there's no money in the budget for that now.

Light rail's next phase, a 3.2-mile extension south from Camden Yards to Patapsco Avenue, which is expected to open this summer, will add 216 parking spaces. When the remaining 5.6-mile leg to Glen Burnie opens next year, riders will have access to 1,029 more spaces along the route.

For Opening Day, 200 more spaces have been made available at the Timonium Fairgrounds adjacent to the Timonium light-rail station. The lot can be reached by driving south on York Road and right on Landstreet Road just before the North Gate entrance.

Five MTA buses are being kept on standby at the Timonium lot in case of overflow crowds. If that happens, the MTA plans to keep some light-rail cars empty so that riders waiting at stations along the route will not be shut out.

Still, there is some concern that a bad experience with light rail will sour potential commuters. People are bound to be surprised that a trolley system that reaches within 300 feet of the stadium has such a limited capacity to carry fans into town. And those limits will exist when the system opens to commuters May 12.

But MTA officials argue that commuters won't all be headed to one stop. They also say the commuting rush is likely to be spread over a longer period than the ballpark rush.

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