Light rail's passenger numbers off the track Trolley line's daily ridership less than 8,200

April 25, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Baltimore's light rail system is running near empty.

One year after opening, the Central Light Rail Line is attracting fewer than one-quarter of the customers it's supposed to carry eventually. The promise of an economic stimulus to the depressed Howard Street business district has gone unfulfilled.

As a result, the high-technology electric trolley line built mostly at the expense of state taxpayers continues to be heavily subsidized by tax dollars, even by the generous standards of mass transit.

Add up the estimated yearly bond payments on its $364.4 million construction cost for its first 22.5 miles and a $10.6 million annual operating budget, and the light rail is so far costing Maryland taxpayers $8,804 per round-trip customer.

By comparison, the city, state and federal governments spend a combined $5,549 to educate each pupil in Baltimore's school system.

"There's deep concern about the ridership problem," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the project. "Construction costs exceeded estimates, and the ridership is far beneath original estimates. It's the worst of both worlds."

According to Mass Transit Administration (MTA) estimates, fewer than 8,200 passenger trips are recorded each day on light rail, which runs 19.5 miles from Timonium in Baltimore County through downtown Baltimore and south to Linthicum in Anne Arundel County.

That amounts to just 25 percent of the 33,100 daily trips the line is supposed to attract by the year 2010.

Admittedly, a three-mile addition to the line's southern terminus in Glen Burnie won't be finished until July, and the future seven miles and $98.1 million worth of extensions to Hunt Valley, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Pennsylvania Station are still three years away.

Nevertheless, those responsible for creating the system clearly are disappointed with its initial performance. They also are reluctant to say so publicly lest they incur the wrath of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the man who is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing light rail to Baltimore.

Hop aboard a light rail car on a typical midday, particularly at the northern end of the line, or anywhere on weekends or evenings, and you won't find much company. Only the peak of rush hour, and the brief crush before and after Orioles games, ever fill the seats.

'The jury's still out'

Nowhere is the low ridership more evident than on Howard Street. Merchants there expected the sleek, European-style mass transit system to bring prosperity to a retail district that has witnessed a spiraling decline.

Disappointed business owners say the MTA led them to believe there would be 30,000 people riding light rail trains immediately, not 17 years in the future.

"With a low-cholesterol and high-fiber diet, maybe I'll live to see the prophecy of the MTA," said Alvin Levi, president of Howard Street Jewelers.

"We're still thrilled to have light rail on Howard Street, but it's not had the impact we were hoping for."

Milt Rosenbaum, president of Market Center Association, which

represents 450 downtown merchants, said more stores were shut down during the light rail construction along Howard Street than have benefited in the year the system has been open.

"How can you justify 5,000 people riding on a system that costs hundreds of millions of dollars?" said Mr. Rosenbaum, who owns a women's hosiery store. "It doesn't make sense. I know of no business that's been opened by the coming of light rail."

State officials contend it's too early to judge. They concede the ,, dearth of economic development, but blame it on the recession.

"The jury's still out, and it will be out for some time," Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said. "It isn't a question of if

light rail will succeed, but when. I have no doubt about that."

In response to the ridership problem, MTA officials are formulating plans to upgrade the system. Their strategy includes adding parking, improving the speed down Howard Street and promoting the system with a broad advertising campaign.

The MTA's urge to aggressively sell Baltimore commuters on light rail demonstrates how attitudes have changed since an ebullient Governor Schaefer unveiled the proposed 29.5-mile system in late 1987 and within a matter of weeks persuaded the General Assembly to tap Maryland's transportation trust fund to finance it.

The cost, originally estimated at $290 million, rose to $446.3 million two years later and last summer climbed $16.2 million more, to $462.5 million. Mr. Lighthizer told legislators that price is now "written in blood."

The most recent overrun led some lawmakers to suggest that the project's final phase -- extensions to Hunt Valley, BWI and Penn Station -- be scrapped. But with the federal government committed to financing 80 percent of the additions, the idea was abandoned quickly.

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