Light Rail: On Track for Development?

May 17, 1992|By MARC V. LEVINE

This has been quite a spring for public works projects in Baltimore. First came the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an architectural masterpiece that has reinforced Baltimore's national reputation as a pacesetter in urban design and has generated hopes of a new wave of downtown redevelopment.

Today marks the official inauguration of the region's second mega-project of the spring: the 22.5-mile, $446.3-million "Central Light Rail Line." In tandem with the decade-old rapid rail Metro, the line gives Baltimore one of the more extensive rail transit systems found in medium-sized cities in the United States. Although the launching of light rail surely lacks the excitement and glamour of opening day at the new ballpark, the long-term impact of this new transit investment on the quality of life in the region may be much more profound.

Baltimore's is the eighth light rail system to be built in American cities since the early 1980s, and at least half a dozen more are in various stages of development. In the 1970s, the vogue in mass transit was "heavy rail;" with the federal government picking up 80 percent of the tab, cities such as Atlanta, Miami, Washington and Baltimore built capital-intensive, high-capacity metrorail systems, powered by an electrified third rail and operating on exclusive rights-of-way.

By the 1980s, however, cuts in federal support, coupled with shrinking local resources, made investment in expensive and often-underused heavy rail systems unfeasible. Transit planners increasingly turned to light rail, the modern variant on the old urban streetcar, capable of running on either separate rights-of-way or city streets.

In addition to saving on the cost of rights-of-way, light rail, although not inexpensive, typically requires less tunneling or elaborate stations, and thus could be built at significantly lower cost. In Baltimore, for example, the heavy rail Metro cost more than four times as much to build as the light rail.

Light rail has been touted as a moderate-cost transit system, likely to attract riders and to promote efficient land use and economic development. On the whole, the experience of other cities supports these claims, although the record is more ambiguous than proponents admit.

Costs

As the table shows, there are clear differences in the capital and operating costs of recently-built light rail systems. Capital costs vary depending, among other factors, on the amount of separate right-of-way, on whether there is a subway component, and on the mix of elaborate stations and bare-bones "shelters."

Compared with other cities, the capital costs for Baltimore's system were on the moderate end, as planners were able to use much existing right-of-way and chose unassuming stations. Moreover, the estimated operating and maintenance expenses for Baltimore's light rail are in line with the experience of other cities.

However, according to a recent study by the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA), cost overruns have been common for light rail systems, and Baltimore's was no exception: The final construction costs rose 40 percent from original estimates, attributed mostly to unexpected repairs required on the right-of-way. Similarly, operating expenses for light rail have tended to run above forecasts, something to keep in mind in considering the long-run fiscal impact.

Ridership

Unlike cost estimates, the ridership forecasts of transit planners for light rail have consistently been too high.

According to the UMTA study, actual daily ridership on the newer light rail systems ranges from 54 percent below forecast (Portland) to 71 percent below (Sacramento). Some critics claim transit planners have deliberately inflated their daily passenger projections to make a more compelling case for federal aid.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, all the money for light rail came from state and local government, so there was no need to inflate ridership forecasts to impress federal officials. Mass Transit Administration officials project a modest 33,000 daily passengers, a ridership level consistent with recent experience in Portland, Buffalo, San Diego and Pittsburgh, and certainly defendable in the context of Baltimore's recent transit history (45,000 daily riders on the Metro).

Economic development

Light rail has already produced an important economic benefit for Baltimore: jobs. As a major public works stimulus to the local economy, construction of light rail generated an estimated 6,500 jobs, while from 1989 to 1991 the number of jobs in Baltimore city declined by more than 40,000.

Longer-term economic benefits from light rail will ensue as development is stimulated around transit stations and route corridors. In Portland, for example, an estimated $700 million in development projects has been built along the light rail line since planning began in 1979.

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