Who pays to keep light rail safe? Baltimore County: Locals should chip in if MTA can't afford full cost of patrols.

April 18, 1997

BALTIMORE COUNTY residents who live along the Central Light Rail Line are fussing because $300,000 in county taxes soon will be used to help the state Mass Transit Administration pay to patrol the stations. It won't be long, we suspect, before folks in Anne Arundel County, which is also being asked to contribute, join this little chorus: We didn't want light rail in the first place, so why should we have to pay to protect it?

What the residents' shaky line of reasoning ignores (besides the fact that people don't get to personally allocate their tax dollars to the projects they prefer) is that they are already paying to protect light rail stations through state taxes. Whether the counties start paying a portion should make no great difference to them, if safety is the issue.

This is a bureaucratic dispute. Local governments don't like having to absorb a new expense. Meanwhile, the MTA says it can no longer afford to pay off-duty county police officers time-and-a-half to supplement coverage by MTA police. We don't know how strapped MTA is, but Maryland law requires that it pay half its expenses from fares. Thus, MTA labors under a perennial need to hold down costs, or raise ticket prices.

Eliminating county police coverage is not an option, and the counties know it. Experience in both jurisdictions has shown that penny-ante crime -- shoplifting and other thefts, mostly -- near stations increases without an obvious law enforcement presence.

Even with it, neighbors sense an unwelcome change, though police statistics show perception is worse than reality. That is inevitable. Anything that brings more people to a community is bound to cause some conflict. That doesn't mean tearing up the tracks, any more than it means returning York Road or Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard to dirt and cinders.

If the MTA can't pay the whole cost, county governments will have to chip in, especially since their residents benefit most from the rail system. It might be sensible for local police to turn station patrols into regular beats staffed with officers earning straight time, instead of an overtime assignment. Start-up costs would make this a more costly option the first year, but after that it would be less expensive for whichever arm of government pays.

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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