Light rail shows rise in ridership

December 22, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Light rail is finally racking up some heavy numbers.

The 19-month-old transit system is attracting 18,617 riders each weekday, more than three times the estimated 5,000 riders who boarded trains at the system's start-up in May 1992.

Like a proud parent with a child's glowing report card, Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveiled the figure yesterday in brief ceremonies at the Central Light Rail Line's maintenance facility on North Avenue.

"Our trains run 98 percent on time," said Mr. Schaefer, "and close to 19,000 trips are made on light rail each day. That means light rail is a success story, and we've done what we proposed."

The ridership count is based on a 10-day monitoring of light rail traffic conducted last month for the Mass Transit Administration.

MTA officials said the numbers are better than expected. The last count, conducted in February before light rail was extended into Anne Arundel County, recorded 8,200 trips a day.

A breakdown of current ridership shows that South Baltimore and Anne Arundel County are popular destinations. The study found 60 percent of light rail riders use stops south of Camden Station.

MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. said the results were so good that he believes light rail will meet its long-range ridership projections much earlier than expected.

The recent tally puts the state more than halfway to its goal of 33,100 daily passengers by 2010.

"We will achieve those numbers [33,100] by the end of the decade," Mr. Agro said. "We won't have to wait until 2010."

Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the MTA's budget, said the ridership numbers are encouraging, but still "quite a way from projections."

"People can still see a lot of empty light rail cars out there during the day," Mr. Maloney said. "Experience in other cities has taught us that we should be patient. It's going to be a while before the system matures."

About 5,000 people were surveyed about their riding habits by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council in conjunction with the MTA study, the results of which won't be compiled until February.

Judging the success of the system is not easy. The increasing ridership is, in part, a function of the MTA's building the light rail system in stages. The most recent leg opened in June, completing the 22.5-mile-long base system from Timonium to Glen Burnie.

Some light rail customers are simply former bus patrons who were forced on light rail by the MTA's decision to close parallel bus routes. The MTA won't know how many riders are "captured" bus riders and how many are new to public transit until the survey is completed in two months, Mr. Agro said.

Despite the improvement in ridership, the system continues to be heavily subsidized by tax dollars. Fares cover only 32 percent of the system's approximately $13.5 million annual operating cost, officials estimated.

All other Baltimore-area transit systems recover at least half their costs.

Mr. Agro said he is confident light rail will continue to attract enough patrons to meet the 50 percent recovery level in two years as mandated by the General Assembly.

The Timonium-to-Glen Burnie rail line is scheduled to expand soon after that, adding extensions to Pennsylvania Station, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Hunt Valley by mid-1997.

Currently the most popular stations, in order of traffic volume, are Lexington Mall, Baltimore Street, Cherry Hill, Cromwell Station, Timonium and Pratt Street.

Far fewer riders use light rail on weekends. The system is averaging 10,705 passengers on Saturdays and just 4,548 on Sundays, the study concluded.

Preliminary results of the passenger survey found riders are generally pleased, state officials said. The system was judged -- efficient, dependable, clean, comfortable and beneficial to the environment.

But it also drew criticism. Patrons were not happy with the scarcity of parking at stations. They wanted better connections, improved security, expanded service and decreased travel time.

To allow ridership to grow, parking could become particularly important. The MTA hopes to add nearly 200 spaces over the next 18 months, including 60 at Falls Road, 50 at North Avenue and 75 at North Linthicum.

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