Controlling light rail crime

May 26, 1994

Bad publicity over crime on the light-rail line could ruin the system's promising future if the Mass Transit Administration doesn't step up law enforcement along the north-south route.

The situation is not as dire as residents make it sound; most of the crimes are minor, the work of rowdy teen-agers and petty thieves. But residents and riders who have been victimized are getting fed up enough to make some serious noise -- enough to discourage prospective riders and spawn opposition to further expansion of mass transit. In northern Anne Arundel County, a community association in Linthicum has demanded that a nearby station be closed. With crime the chief worry on voters' minds, politicians smell a campaign issue with definite populist appeal.

The MTA could have avoided all this had it had a law enforcement plan involving local police forces and the communities from the day light rail opened. Now that trouble is brewing, the MTA is talking about such a coordinated effort. But until now its policing efforts have been lax. If the MTA foresaw the possibility of thugs and delinquents using the trains to reach new territory, it did not adequately prepare for it. The agency should have seen that having MTA police patrol trains and platforms is not enough; it will need help from local police to make it clear to criminals that the communities along the rail line are not easy hits.

Earlier this month, after a spate of complaints from residents and merchants, Anne Arundel County police decided on their own to intensify patrols in light-rail communities. They also have been educating merchants about better private security and residents about crime prevention. Already, the number of incidents has decreased.

Shutting down light-rail stations and scuttling the concept of mass transit is not the answer. Environmental concerns and the astronomical costs of road construction and maintenance demand that governments do more to get people out of their cars. This is a difficult process, but it is working. Thousands of people are using the rail, and only a tiny handful for use it for ill.

There is no question a train station brings changes to a community. That was true when the first railroads were built. It is true now. The benefits outweigh the negatives, but people forget that unless the negatives are minimized. Light-rail crime is a controllable problem. The MTA says it is ready to deal with it. It better be, since the communities will be watching.

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