Baltimore's Central Light Rail Line has had a rough ride -- undeservedly so.

BARRY RASCOVAR

May 09, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

It's been held to imposssibly high standards and hit with a barrage of slanted statistics that puts the system in a no-win situation.

It's not surprising this would happen. After all, we live in an era of instant gratification: If the new president can't perform miracles in a few days, we crucify him; if our favorite baseball team can't play like world champions in the first few weeks of the season, we turn into boo-birds; if our corporations don't produce big earnings gains each and every quarter, stockholders demand the CEO's head on a platter.

And now the Baltimore light-rail system is not meeting our inflated expectations. As a recent news account put it: "One year after opening, the Central Light Rail Line is attracting fewer than one-quarter of the customers it's supposed to carry eventually."

Sounds pretty damning, doesn't it? But scratch beneath the surface and you get quite a different perspective.

Yes, the central line is only carrying 8,200 passengers a day. And yes, that's less than 25 percent of the 33,100 daily riders eventually projected. But here's what isn't emphasized: 1) the most important portions of the line haven't opened yet, and 2) that 33,100 figure is the number of daily riders projected for the year 2010 -- 17 years from now.

Did we really expect the light-rail line to reach that figure 17 years in advance, with only a portion of the system in operation? That's absurd.

Yet critics are banging away at the Schaefer administration and its light-rail "folly." If there's folly, it's the critics who are guilty.

No light-rail system in the country has been a booming success from Day One. Each one has struggled in the early years, only to take off as the full system is opened and riders shift commuting habits. It takes time to wean people away from their cars. Setting up the light-rail system as a punching bag for politicians and doom-and-gloomers ignores the rationale behind building this system.

Like it or not, light rail is the wave of the future. The revised Clean Air Act makes that a certainty. In just a few years, metro-area employers will be forced to devise all sorts of schemes to stop so many of their employees from driving the car to work. That's the law. And once this happens, the popularity of light-rail will soar.

Certainly, the Schaefer administration made some mistakes. It grossly underestimated the need for parking at stations. Without adequate parking, there's no way the state will draw decent numbers to the trolley-trains. To save money, the state built much of the line with only one track. This guarantees slower journeys and occasional delays. And it picked a lightly populated northern path because existing railroad tracks were available.

But most of these flaws can be corrected. Commuter patterns should start to change in the next few years as more people recognize the benefits of taking the light rail to work rather than the gridlocked Jones Falls Expressway.

Later this summer, the southerly line will reach Ferndale with its huge parking lot. That puts the line within reach of the densely populated northern Anne Arundel County constituency.

In 1995, the line to Hunt Valley will open, giving workers at that large office park -- and commuters from northern Baltimore County and southern Pennsylvania -- easy access to the train. Also about that time, the spur to BWI Airport will open. That will benefit air travelers, but more important it will serve thousands of workers at plants surrounding the airport.

L By then, the ridership numbers will look entirely different.

Other proposals are bubbling along, too. A $10 million expansion from Ferndale to downtown Glen Burnie could get the go-ahead. A proposed line to East Columbia in Howard County seems likely to surface once again. A light-rail link to the Metro station being built at Johns Hopkins Hospital to either White Marsh or Perry Hall is being discussed. A light-rail link to Carroll County from the Owings Mills Metro seems a natural, too.

And there's also the Glen Burnie-to-Annapolis extension. That's sure to generate the most emotional debate. Folks in that corridor adore their bikeway. But that bikeway was set up to preserve the right of way of the old B&A Railroad. Finding a way to restore the train tracks along the B&A path while preserving the bikers' and hikers' green space will require political agility. But this light-rail extension makes sense.

In fact, the entire light-rail plan makes sense. Metropolitan areas have to find ways to stem auto pollution. Mass transit is the answer. And so far a light-rail system is the most cost-effective and environmentally effective way to do it.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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