Light Rail, Heavy Burden

April 29, 1994|By BROOKE SOUTHALL

Look! More Baltimore Oriole fans traveled by light rail to Camden Yards on opening day this year than last. And not only has light-rail ridership doubled in the last year, it is more than halfway to the projected ridership goal of 30,000 for 2010.

So, the latest headlines about crime notwithstanding, the Mass Transit Administration has lots of good news for us. And more good news seems to be in prospect, because light-rail extensions to Hunt Valley, BWI Airport and Penn Station are under way.

While nobody hopes MTA's optimism is ill-founded, basic questions remain unanswered. How meaningful, to begin with, is the goal of attaining ridership of 30,000? Currently, Baltimore's population of 2.4 million is served by a subway system transporting 43,000 riders daily and a bus system transporting 275,000. Will Baltimore's transportation needs be served (at a cost of a half-billion dollars) by having 30,000 light-rail riders -- many of them cannibalized from the bus lines' ridership?

Furthermore, what does 30,000 riders mean? Answer: 15,000 commuters. The MTA's current figure of 18,617 riders is, in fact, the equivalent of 9,308.5 commuters. The accounting works life this: A commuter takes two rides a day -- one to work and another home -- so one commuter equals two riders.

Regardless of the accounting, MTA says, light-rail ridership, at 18,617, surpasses in only two years the half-way point for the 20-year target. Good news. By what measure? What, in fact, did the MTA expect ridership to be in the years between 1991 and 2010? Answer: No interim projections were set.

In the 1980s, light-rail opponents, in response to these projections (and lack of them), asked that the line's completion be delayed. Why not, they asked, wait until 2010 when population density along the line will be sufficient? An expensive overhaul of the line needs to be done at that time anyway. The MTA replied that the 30,000 riders figure would be reached far ahead of schedule anyway.

The recent jump in ridership numbers has coincided with the extension of the line to Anne Arundel County. Even light-rail opponents agreed in 1988 that this area's density might merit a light rail line based on studies done at the time.

Whose studies were they? MTA's. Were they right? Yes. Is this good news? Not if you consider that these same studies indicate that building the Hunt Valley, BWI, and Penn Station extensions will bring only marginal ridership increases.

Take, for instance, the five-mile Timonium to Hunt Valley Mall extension. MTA anticipates 674 riders, or 337 commuters. The cost -- notaccounting for the planned but not budgeted shuttle service, or (based on history) cost overruns -- will be $50 million. Is this money well spent? MTA's own studies suggest an alternative -- buying three buses -- would cost $1.6 million and serve the same basic function.

But does the extra $48.4 million matter? Not really. The federal government is picking up about 75 percent of the tab. Quick, build it.

Let's recall the rationales for building the light rail: reducing pollution, congestion, energy use, etc. And saving money in the long-run. Studies (MTA's included) and experience have shown that these goals for reductions will not (except perhaps in Anne Arundel County) be reached. And good money will need to follow bad to keep the line running, and for the MTA to save face.

In the past, light-rail supporters have saved face by calling light-rail opponents ''naysayers'' -- defined as one too timid and short-sighted to make Baltimore a world-class city.

No one disagrees that Baltimore has world-class drug, crime and other urban problems. These have, in fact, increased with the completion of each of Governor Schaefer's world-class projects. But my understanding of ''class'' differs slightly from the governor's. Can't Baltimore demonstrate world class by declining federal funding until it defines public policy with regard to mass transportation?

No? Then can we at least cut out those celebrations of meaningless increases in light-rail ridership. They insult our intelligence.

Brooke Southall writes from Rodgers Forge.

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