Down by the station (but not in Ruxton) Light rail opens Sunday without some key stations

Gwinn Owens

May 14, 1992|By Gwinn Owens

FROM my veranda I can occasionally hear the easy trundling sound of the Central Light Rail train on the tracks at the foot of Locust Avenue in Ruxton. As I write, the sound occurs only before and after Orioles home games. The Mass Transit Administration has provided service to more than 100,000 baseball fans as a test for the full schedule that will begin Sunday.

The start-up of light rail represents both a triumph and a defeat for those of us who have unceasingly agitated for such service since 1959, when the then-Pennsylvania Railroad ended the Parkton Local trains. The new service is a triumph because what we urged has been done, and done well,thanks to the testy determination of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

It is also a defeat, because for five miles -- between the Falls Road and Lutherville stations -- there are no stops, none in Ruxton, none in Riderwood. The MTA has bowed to the no-station wishes of the little group of willful men and women who run the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association.

So those of us under the association's jurisdiction have been forced to accept the group's "improvement." We can watch the trains go by, but we can't use them, unless we drive to the JTC Lutherville Station, going three miles north to travel eight miles south. (Out of anger and defiance, I have done just that, to ride comfortably back and forth to three baseball games.)

From the start, the anti-light rail faction seems to have thrived on misinformation. At a meeting last year of the Northern Light Rail Coalition (an offshoot that includes some Lutherville people), the opposition could only be described as hysterical. People were still taking about a court injunction even as the tracks were being laid.

It was a carnival of buncombe. The noise would be "intolerable." (In fact, the trains are so quiet that the danger is the reverse -- that people crossing the tracks will not hear them coming.) There were multiple contradictions: It's a waste of money because no one will use it, said one opponent, who then said it would endanger our communities. (What danger, if no one uses it?) A Lake Roland area resident said it would destroy the environment, somehow overlooking the fact that the world's chief polluter is the automobile.

It is also a sad fact is that beneath some of this opposition is a tinge of racism. One young woman told me, "It will bring the wrong element into our community." (What is "the wrong element"?) An older opponent, when I asked her to be specific, answered with one word: "Crime."

Her fear of crime as a result of the light rail is puzzling. Will the criminal board the train downtown, get off in Ruxton, walk to her house (a mile away), load his pack with her silver, trudge back to the station and patiently await the next train?

Still unknown is whether the opposition to a Ruxton-Riderwood station runs very deep. The improvement association's poll was indecisive. My own inquiry -- I have asked scores of people -- shows about 2-to-1 in favor of a station. According to Ronald Hartman, MTA administrator, his office is setting many calls complaining about the lack of a Ruxton-Riderwood station. But, he says, the MTA will not provide one until the community asks for it.

This raises the question of whether the RRLRAIA will ever change its stand under the present leadership. Its board is dominated by people too young to remember the convenience of the commuter service. Ironically, it may have been their parents who signed the 1959 petition that sought in vain to keep the trains running.

What is most distressing, however, is the intellectual blindness of people who ought to know better. Ruxton and Riderwood are the wealthiest of the suburban communities; the improvement association's board cannot be accused of acting from the stress of being underprivileged. As Baltimore's leaders, they must know that a society which sees beyond today has to face up to alternatives to an automobile-saturated environment.

Certainly, there are problems of parking and congestion near a station, all of which are manageable with the proper laws and regulations. And obviously, for errands, for social journeys, the automobile is here to stay; our communities are now arranged so that there is no alternative. But in handling the commuting glut, there is a real opportunity to make both the macrocosm of an increasingly polluted world and the microcosms of our neighborhoods better places.

Nor is pollution the only issue. The light rail can bring city residents to where the jobs are and thus move us at least a few inches closer to dealing with urban problems -- which are already encroaching on our doorsteps. If the leaders in Ruxton can't see this, what hope is there?

Beyond the community concerns I, as an individual, feel a deep personal rage against my improvement association's leadership. This feeling, I suspect, is shared by other residents of Ruxton and Riderwood. I make several trips downtown most weeks, and the light rail goes near all my destinations. The fare is $2.40 for a round trip (80 cents for me, a senior citizen). To drive means paying to park -- $4 or $5.

Those who would protest their exclusion from light rail service must pressure the RRLRAIA's leaders to change their stand. Otherwise the answer will continue to be a modern version of Marie Antoinette: Let 'em buy a Mercedes.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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