The Need for a Full Rail System

July 23, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Two years from now, traveling by ''light-rail'' mass transit will finally make a lot more sense.

That's when three extensions under construction will open for business. The line will stretch from BWI Airport all the way to Hunt Valley. It will reach Penn Station. And it will top its ridership goals far earlier than predicted.

Still, Baltimore's rapid-rail lines are disappointing. There's no network or spoke-and-wheels set-up. What we have are two, unconnected lines. That's the entire system.

One of them, the Metro, is a conventional subway-type route speeding from Owings Mills to downtown and then on to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It is clean, safe, inexpensive and fast. Yet the Owings Mills terminus has yet to be properly exploited by suburbanites. And the Hopkins terminus, just recently opened, hasn't been an immediate sensation. It does, though, hold vast potential if given the proper push by state, city and hospital officials.

The high cost of building a below-ground rail line means that Baltimore won't see more Metro branches. Unlike the lucky folks in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Baltimore doesn't have a federal government willing to throw billions of dollars into its ''hometown'' D.C.-region Metro -- the Taj Mahal of modern subway systems. Even under conservative Republicans eager to slash domestic programs, Congress is still earmarking gobs of money for further suburban Washington subway routes.

Meanwhile, Baltimore is stuck with a two-line system. It needs more. The sheer number of workers in Hunt Valley -- 30,000 -- and near the airport -- many times 30,000 -- should assure the light-rail line success in 1997. Giving train and plane passengers a direct connection to downtown and beyond is sure to prove popular, too.

But the Baltimore lines still will be lacking critical synergy. The two lines travel, generally, north-south. There is no east-west branch, except to Hopkins. It won't be a rapid-rail ''system'' until routes cross paths and provide transfer points that make it a true network for folks trying to travel without a car.

There's no grand plan for such a system, and no political commitment or fiscal resource. Yet the entire Baltimore region needs a rapid-rail network that can liberate many in suburbia from the constant hassle of driving on increasingly clogged highways.

What is required is a consensus approach for the Baltimore region spanning several decades. Where should the light-rail lines go? How should the state and localities pay for these routes? And what role should the state play in all this?

The priorities should be spelled out so that everyone knows what comes after the current construction projects are finished. Near the top of the list should be light-rail lines reaching out into other parts of suburban Baltimore:

* Using the Amtrak right of way near Hopkins Hospital to connect with Rosedale, Middle River, Golden Ring Mall and White Marsh. That would serve as a convenient terminus for commuters coming from Harford County.

* Following the Franklin- Mulberry corridor from downtown to Edmondson Avenue, Westview, the Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City and then into Columbia via Route 29.

* Extending the light-rail line into Glen Burnie and then erecting a Disney-style elevated rail that would co-exist with bikers and joggers along the Baltimore and Annapolis right of way that some day could stretch all the way to the Severn River and the outskirts of Annapolis.

* Linking the Metro stop at Lexington Market to the Social Security and the Health Care Financing Administration headquarters in Woodlawn west of the city.

* Creating a northeastern route from Hopkins out Belair Road to populous Perry Hall.

* Creating a downtown loop by extending the Penn Station spur down Guilford Avenue all the way to Pratt Street and the harbor, then swinging west to Howard Street and the existing light-rail tracks. This is a critical connection to make most of downtown accessible by rapid rail.

Pie in the sky? Absolutely. There is no political will from City Hall or the State House to make this happen. Nor is there any private-sector impetus.

That's a shame. The region needs a coherent, integrated rapid-rail network to thrive in the next century. Without it, both businesses and residents will be frustrated. These are costly projects, but they will last for generations.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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