The Central Light Rail Line, now three years old, took a large step toward maturity last week with the start of construction on three key additions. The system is now within reach of its true potential as a major transit facility for the metropolitan area.
In two years it will be possible to ride the light rail to work in Hunt Valley, catch an Amtrak train at Penn Station or reach Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the surrounding business parks. The fledgling system is already carrying two-thirds of the passengers projected for 2010. That could be surpassed ten years early.
For the investment of an additional $106 million to the $364.4 million already spent, the light rail system will make a lot more economic sense. Hunt Valley embraces 340 businesses with nearly 30,000 employees. Enough of them work in the city, or the northern part of Anne Arundel County, to make the system a genuinely two-way operation during rush hours. It won't be just a vehicle for bringing suburbanites downtown any longer. Not to mention the hundreds of Orioles fans who may be attracted by the ample parking at Hunt Valley. Similarly, the area around BWI is thick with commercial buildings, with perhaps another 30,000 workers within reach of the spur's two stations.
Completion of the planned central system will be a major development for public transit in another way. Because it is not fully developed, the light rail is a bit of a drag on the Mass Transit Administration's finances. The MTA is required to pay half of its operating costs from the fare box. After a two-year introductory period, the light rail is now subject to that requirement, but doesn't yet quite make it. Once it does, it will ease the pressure caused by the greater shortfall in the Metro subway's paying its share. It is already clear the MTA will have to increase fares to meet its 50 percent obligation; the sooner light rail provides more traffic and revenue the better for the whole network.
The short spurs to BWI and Penn Station introduce a new facet to the rail system. Trains will connect the two depots, providing service to downtown and each other. Travelers along the system will be able to reach the airport without expensive cab rides or the hassle of parking there. Amtrak's main line to Washington and New York will be within easy reach. Baltimoreans who travel to cities with rail connections to their airports already appreciate the convenience in store for them here.