Light rail forges ahead

December 28, 1993

Critics of Baltimore's light rail system keep on insisting it is falling short of expectation because ridership hasn't yet reached the projected 33,000-a-day target. A new survey, taken since the system was extended south from Camden Yards to the vicinity of Glen Burnie, shows a jump in riders to more than 18,000 a day. Does that mean the light rail is lagging halfway behind expectations, as Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, seems to think? No, it means the system is well ahead of expectations.

The 33,000-rider target was supposed to be met in the year 2010. The basic system that's already built is two-thirds of the way there and appears likely to reach its goal 10 years ahead of schedule. That doesn't count more than 5,000 additional daily riders who should be attracted to light rail once additions are completed to Hunt Valley, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Pennsylvania Station.

So where does the Mass Transit Administration go from here? No one would argue that the light rail is without faults, least of all the MTA itself. It was built in a hurry, with compromises that left it less efficient than desired. The route up the Jones Falls Valley was chosen not because it would produce the most riders but because it could be built quickly. Some stations have inadequate parking, and others that would have produced more commuters were not built because of neighborhood opposition. To save money, much of the route is single track, drastically lengthening waiting time.

Most of these problems can be remedied. More parking spaces are in the works. The MTA is studying possible locations for new stations, including one that might appeal to commuters near the junction of I-83 and the Beltway. Other suburban locations that passed up the chance for stations initially will be surveyed for changes of mind now that the system's attractions are obvious.

It's ironic that the southern extension of light rail has been so eagerly welcomed in Anne Arundel County. Thirty years ago its officials rejected the Metro subway, which initially would have continued south from Baltimore Street. Perhaps residents of some northern suburbs will take heed.

If ridership continues to grow, the state eventually will be justified in investing the $40 million to double-track the whole system. Pressure to meet federal clean-air standards will force more commuters onto mass transit, too. Light rail is well on its way to proving itself a boon.

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