Light rail: just getting started

April 29, 1993

Mass transit systems are not built overnight, nor do the blossom overnight. The Central Light Rail Line threading its way along the Jones Falls Valley through downtown to Linthicum has not met some peoples' expectations. Its white cars are not full except during the peak of rush hour and for Oriole baseball games. But neither are other forms of transportation, including the highways where cost, congestion and fumes are increasingly forcing commuters to choose mass transit.

The Baltimore area's light-rail line is not yet completed. Opening the line to the city's southern border boosted ridership by 50 percent. Many more are expected when light rail reaches Ferndale in July. Planners assumed from the start that twice as many riders would come from the southern suburbs as from the north. Planned extensions to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which will appeal greatly to air travelers not too burdened with baggage, and to the office complexes of Hunt Valley will stimulate more traffic.

One reason ridership on the light rail -- now about 8,000 people daily -- lags behind similar lines elsewhere lies in the way it was laid out. Pressed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and anxious to take advantage of available federal money, state officials made some compromises and some mistakes. They picked a route that could be developed quickly but which did not pass through thickly populated neighborhoods. Parking space was severely limited in some neighborhoods because of opposition, and some logical stops were skipped for the same reason. To save money a large stretch of the northern section was single-tracked, sharply limiting its capacity and speed. As a result, running time from the northern suburbs is longer than a lot of potential riders had expected.

Most of these problems can be rectified in time, some at considerable cost, others at relatively little. Running time along Howard Street, now a crawl, can be reduced substantially by giving the light-rail cars priority at intersections with cross-town traffic. This is already in the works. So are more parking spaces at some stops. Other improvements would be a lot more expensive, but their value will be evident in time. The issue is not whether more money should be spent on light rail. It is when, and how much, and where it will come from.

The growth of mass transit -- and that means trains, not buses -- is unavoidable in coming years. Additional expensive underground subways are unlikely. If congestion and cost don't force automobile commuters onto mass transit, the requirements the Clean Air Act will. Light rail is the answer, and that will soon become clear even to the doubters.

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