In midtown Baltimore, three stories of steel and reinforced concrete offer hope of better times for both a neighborhood and a way of travel.
About two months away from completion, the long-awaited Pennsylvania Station parking garage has taken shape at the foot of the 84-year-old train depot, at St. Paul and Charles streets and the Jones Falls Expressway.
For rail commuters and Amtrak patrons, the garage will offer a convenient place to park their cars. For Charles Street commuters, it will mean an end to the major traffic tie-up caused by construction.
But for the surrounding area, the $10 million government investment is seen as a blessing, the first step in reversing years of economic hard luck, empty storefronts and vacant apartments, and halting the steady onslaught of crime and drugs.
"What the train station is doing could help turn things around," said the Rev. Dale W. Dusman, president of the Charles North Community Association and pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church on St. Paul. "Penn Station isn't to blame for the neighborhood's problems, but maybe all this effort could boost us. It can't hurt."
In the era of discount air fares and super highways, it is easy to forget that Penn Station with its peeling paint and unkempt appearance is a major gateway into Baltimore, handling 3,000 to 6,000 commuters and rail passengers each day.
Positioned on the nation's best-traveled passenger rail line -- the Northeast corridor from Washington to Boston -- Penn Station is the fifth busiest Amtrak facility in the country. This holiday weekend, local Amtrak workers are expecting their biggest crowds since Thanksgiving.
Yet, since a modest face-lift 12 years ago at a cost of more than $5 million, Amtrak has spent little to maintain its terminal in Baltimore. With major cuts in Amtrak's budget pending in Congress, it is unlikely the federal government will be spending a lot of money on it anytime soon.
"The heavier maintenance has been overlooked," admitted SharonA. Mahoney, Amtrak's assistant general manager for customer services. "We're surviving and running a railroad, but some of our facilities are in disarray. Baltimore is one."
Nevertheless, Penn Station appears on the verge of a rebound, with its parking capacity soon to be more than doubled by the new garage and an inviting plaza along Charles Street in the works. Eventually, direct links with the JFX and the Central Light Rail Line are to be added.
"It's a terrific thing," said developer James "Buzz" Cusack, owner of the nearby Charles Theater, Baltimore's cinema art house. "Baltimore will appear to have a real train station . . . a welcoming, wonderful place."
At the end of July, six months behind schedule and $1 million over budget, the 550-space garage is scheduled to open. No longer will the building's modest side entrance on Charles Street provide the sole access to the station.
City officials blame an unexpected strata of rock that had to be blasted to make way for the foundation pilings and the harsh weather in the winter of 1993-1994 for the project's delays and cost overrun.
For the two years of construction, Charles Street's afternoon rush hour traffic has been mayhem as taxis, cars and other vehicles jam up a lane, sometimes two, to drop off or to pick up passengers.
Rail travelers found parking to the north, including the privately leased lot behind the station. But they have had to brave the elements, as well as panhandlers, on the sidewalks leading to the station.
"The parking lot is going to make it a better experience to come here," said Kenneth E. Wiedel Jr., the station's customer service supervisor. "Parking has been a problem. This will make it safer."
The garage's top deck will form a new plaza in front of the main entrance, giving traffic from St. Paul easy access to the station to pick up or to discharge passengers.
"It will be a much more impressive entrance," promised George G. Balog, the city's public works director.
Drivers will have the option of turning onto a ramp that will lead them down to three levels of parking -- albeit expensive parking at $3 an hour. Or, they may exit onto Charles Street or return to St. Paul.
Ultimately, there will be a direct connection from the plaza to the Jones Falls Expressway. Until that is added, however, motorists will have to circle around the neighborhood to reach the highway's Charles Street entrance.
The ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway, connecting the plaza to the highway, and renovation of the Charles Street bridges over the JFX and the rail tracks that will extend the plaza's Charles Street access won't begin until next year. They will likely be completed, at a cost of $15 million to $20 million, in 1997 or 1998.
The light rail connection, part of a $106 million project to extend the Timonium-to-Glen Burnie electric trolley line to Hunt Valley and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, will come in the form of a short spur from Mount Royal Station.