Light Rail Carries the Public's Worries

COMMENT

May 22, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

A funny thing about light rail: A year ago you couldn't find a politician to say a bad word about it; now all of a sudden light rail is the bane of Anne Arundel County, a carrier of evil, death on wheels.

The police report several dozen rail-related shopliftings, a homeowner's association goes ballistic out of fear that hoodlums from the city are about to take over their neighborhoods, and, voila! A hot campaign issue is born.

National and local polls show that fear of crime is the No. 1 concern on voters' minds, so the light rail controversy couldn't have come along at a better time, politically speaking. Candidates for elected office can't whip out their anti-light rail, isolationist position papers fast enough.

County Council Chairman Ed "Fast Eddie" Middlebrooks, once D-Severn but now R-Severn, was one of the first to weigh in, warning that the crime in North County is but a foretaste of greater doom if light rail extends further south. Mr. Middlebrooks is not stupid. Railing against light rail could serve him well if he runs against Ferndale Sen. Michael J. Wagner, who fought for the train system.

Millersville Del. John Gary, a Republican candidate for county executive, does not mention light rail in his position paper; indeed, he told North County residents the walk-up Linthicum station probably would not be closed, as they have demanded. But some of his statements echo the "wall us in, keep those people out" sentiments one finds, not just in Linthicum, but all over the Baltimore suburbs.

"We must make protecting our borders against the invasion of violent crime from Baltimore and Prince George's County a top priority," Mr. Gary writes.

Old fears and prejudices lurk not far beneath the surface of the light rail issue. Politicians are ready and willing to stir them up, which is too bad. We need a healthy dose of calm and reason, not a host of candidates leading us toward mass hysteria.

Light rail has brought some problems to Anne Arundel, but they are neither as great nor as unsolvable as one would have thought based on the comments that have appeared in the paper over the last week.

Sgt. Ron Bateman is head of the county police's Light Rail Initiative, a task force targeting rail-related crime.

Yes, he says, some are using the train to ride down here and commit crimes. Since May 4, when the initiative began, police have arrested 46 people known to have used light rail. Nine of the arrests were drug-related; the rest involved shoplifting, mostly at the Cromwell Fields shopping center across from the Glen Burnie station.

As far as residential crimes are concerned, a series of bicycle thefts last summer and a few other incidents -- "not a drastic number" -- which occurred before the police initiative began are the only ones that have been linked to light rail, Sergeant Bateman said.

Since the crackdown, "We've been able to blame no breaking and enterings or local thefts on light rail."

The stabbing that occurred last month at the North Linthicum station cannot be connected to a rail rider, either. The assailant has never been caught, so for all police know he could be from Linthicum.

Residents are not imagining things. Light rail has changed their community. It has brought them closer to Baltimore, and unfortunately there are those who will use that accessibility for ill -- not that many, given the tens of thousands who ride light rail, but more than any neighborhood wants.

Before light rail ever started, the local police, the Mass Transit Administration, merchants and residents should have been working together, preparing to deal with this change by stepping up enforcement and crime prevention.

"Now you have a new thing in town, you have to change your ways a little bit," Sergeant Bateman says. Except nobody did.

Merchants didn't learn to take simple precautions, like keeping only one tennis shoe on display to discourage theft. Residents begged for help from police, but failed to use the department's crime prevention resources and take an active role in fighting crime themselves. Police didn't allocate extra resources until this month. The MTA only now is talking about joining forces with the local jurisdictions to combat crime.

Eventually, Sergeant Bateman said, word got around "that it's an easy hit in Anne Arundel County."

It doesn't have to be that way. Already, just since the Light Rail Initiative began, police say problems at the Shipley Shopping Center, near the walk-up station on Camp Meade Road, have ceased.

"We can restore the integrity of light rail," Sergeant Bateman said, and, indeed, the powers that be should be restoring its integrity, not exploiting exaggerated fears that it is a carrier of urban plague.

Lost in all the rhetoric about crime is the fact that the benefits of light rail far outweigh the disadvantages. Thousands use the line to commute to work, ball games or cultural events. New environmental laws demand that we turn more to mass transit. And there are economic and social benefits to bringing the region closer together instead of putting up walls between its different parts.

As George Bachman, the county councilman from Linthicum, put it: "You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. You got a problem with light rail, you fix the problem."

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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