Light Rail's Light Ridership

June 14, 1993

It's too early to go into mourning over the Central Light Rail Line. It is not yet filled to capacity, except at rush hour and just before or after baseball games. But no one expected that it would be.

The basic line isn't complete; it won't reach Glen Burnie until July. Another leg, one that might attract a lot more riders, will not connect with BWI Airport until 1996. The main line will also reach beyond Timonium to the business-office complex at Hunt Valley by that time. Even then the light-rail cars will not reach anything near capacity. But they will someday, and that's the point.

We're sure there would be more than the 8,000 people now riding the light rail line each day if some compromises and mistakes had not been made in planning and construction. The state knuckled under to vocal opponents in some neighborhoods by skimping on parking and skipping logical stops. It mitigated cost overruns by long stretches of single tracks, severely limiting capacity and speed. Its path through the city was expedient and does not intersect with residential neighborhoods. The run from the suburbs takes too long.

None of these flaws is fatal. In the long run, which is the only way this $462.5 million project should be evaluated, they can be corrected. Giving trains precedence over crosstown traffic along Howard Street should cut running time. More parking space -- already being addressed -- is critical. Other improvements would cost a lot more, but their value will become evident in time. Before this decade is out, officials will be debating how much more to invest in light rail.

The Baltimore area cannot continue to depend on gasoline (or, worse, diesel) propulsion to get to and from work. The flood of automobiles carrying, more often than not, only a driver is poisoning the air we breathe. Their inefficiency and insatiable need for more roads and highways constitute an economic cost the region can no longer tolerate.

That will become increasingly evident to ordinary citizens, as it has already to far-sighted officials, and they will turn to mass transit. The Clean Air Act practically guarantees it.

Heavy-rail systems that tunnel underground or rise over streets are too expensive and disruptive these days. Only a massive technological leap or an unlikely flood of money from Washington could make subway construction viable again. Buses themselves cause pollution, and they are incapable of moving masses of commuters. Light rail is the happy middle way.

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