Light Rail's Next Steps

August 05, 1994

Whither the Central Light Rail Line? It's a fair question. The basic system is up and running, with some operating problems and physical shortcomings. Ridership is at least as high as can be expected for a two-year-old system. There are still some operating problems and physical shortcomings, but they can be remedied. So where does the system go from here?

Some clues can be found in the recent ridership survey conducted by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. It's not just a picture of where light rail is today. User comments point to problems and opportunities ahead. Most revealing is the linkage between riders' perceptions of the system's shortcomings and their opinions of the service they get.

Asked in a questionnaire on a typical weekday, 45 percent said they would like improvements in service; 15 percent wanted physical improvements. Yet four times as many volunteered positive sentiments as negative (16 percent to 4 percent) about overall quality. Generally there was a high correlation between groups of riders (by place they boarded the system) who sought improvements but were still happy about service in general.

This suggests the Mass Transit Administration ought to adopt the commercial message, "Try it, you'll like it." Nearly half of the system's riders didn't use mass transit for comparable travel before light rail came along -- and 16 percent said the trip on light rail would not have been made at all without the facility. About a quarter of daily riders travel from the city out to the suburbs -- a proportion that has doubled since the system opened. To the extent that this number correlates with the 30 percent of riders who own no automobile, the light rail is fulfilling one of its most important objectives: getting workers to jobs they couldn't otherwise reach.

Those 5,500 new riders would fill another lane on the Jones Falls Expressway during rush hour. Rebuilding the JFX cost $200 million a couple of years ago. At that rate, the $40 million cost of upgrading the light rail by double-tracking it from Timonium to Glen Burnie doesn't look so burdensome. Along with other improvements to speed the trains, including links to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Penn Station, the system could attract a lot more drivers from congested, smog-producing highways by getting them to work and back more comfortably and quickly. Then commuters living east and west of downtown can demand similar service.

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