Light Rail, Low Politics

May 18, 1994

Exploiting fear is one of the cheapest tactics a public official can use. That hasn't stopped police chief Robert Russell from dramatically denouncing light rail as "a pipeline of evil." Or Council Chairman Edward Middlebrooks from predicting the whole county will turn into a den of iniquity if the rail line creeps southward.

Light rail has emerged as a convenient tool in what could end up being the nastiest race in the county -- the District 32 state Senate race. Mr. Middlebrooks, who just switched his party affiliation to the GOP, is expected to run against incumbent and Democratic Party leader Michael J. Wagner. That's fine; competition is healthy in any election, and Mr. Wagner has not faced an opponent in 12 years. But the way light rail is being used as a weapon against him is exploitative and dishonest. Mr. Wagner was and is a proponent of light rail. Now members of the Linthicum-Shipley Improvement Association are convinced light rail is ruining their community. Those who would like to see the powerful senator brought down smell an issue that just might do that. And regardless of who the opponent may be, politicians see advantages in pandering to fear of crime, the top issue on voters' minds.

The problem is that while fears are real, they are not always a measure of reality. And the answers people want are not always the right answers. Closing stations and squelching further light rail expansions are not the answers. We need mass transit. We need it to protect the environment, to ease traffic congestion, to keep Baltimore's heart beating by making it easier for people to get into the city to do business, attend ball games and shop.

Yes, some people are using light rail for ill. Some people use cars to do mischief, too, but no one wants to ban them. Furthermore, while an increase in shoplifting at shopping centers has been linked to light rail, the extent to which rail riders are committing residential crime is unknown.

This is not to minimize the problem. We need stronger security measures, not just along the line but in the communities and commercial centers affected by light rail. This must be a cooperative effort between the MTA, local police and businesses. Elected leaders ought to be working to make the rail line safer -- not playing on people's fears because it suits their ends.

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