Light Rail: Path of the Future

February 01, 1994

Put light rail service where people want it and can reach it conveniently, and they will use it. That's the plain message of the most recent ridership survey on the Central Light Rail Line. Service was extended from downtown almost to Glen Burnie last June, and ridership more than doubled. In fact, the 18,000 daily riders represent more than half the number of riders anticipated by 2010 for the already completed base system.

It's been easy for critics to carp at the use of the system, not yet two years old. Ridership built up slowly, and empty cars were frequent sights, particularly during non-peak hours.

And for good reason. The initial portion of the system did not pass through highly populated areas, nor did it reach major destinations in the suburbs. The route up the Jones Falls Valley was picked because it could be implemented quickly to satisfy an impatient governor. Parking was inadequate at many stations, and one or two were inconvenient to reach. A couple of neighborhoods rejected stations. Much of the line was single track, which slows down trains. Running time through downtown streets left much to be desired.

But the impact of the southern extension demonstrates that light rail's initial problems -- including last week's iced rails -- can be solved. Spur lines from the base system to prime destinations like BWI Airport, Penn Station and Hunt Valley should draw thousands more regular riders. So will increased parking spaces at some of the northern stations. And so, above all, will faster service.

The Mass Transit Administration is making progress on some fronts. In addition to increased parking at existing stations, it is studying a new lot near the junction of the Beltway and Interstate 83 to attract more suburbanites. The MTA is ready to survey neighborhoods that initially passed up stations now that light rail's attractions are obvious. Devices giving the trains priority at downtown intersections have speeded service. Eventually, the MTA will be able to justify the $40 million it would cost to double-track at least the basic 22.5 miles from Timonium to the outskirts of Glen Burnie.

The final boost to light rail will come when commuters and the business community face the consequences of the federal Clean Air Act. Whether or not employers are forced to require that their workers limit individual automobile travel, some restrictions are inevitable. Riding in quiet, comfortable, efficient light-rail cars will become an attractive option to tens of thousands who now disdain them.

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