The next steps for Baltimore's mass transit

September 14, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

NOW THAT THE CENTRAL Light Rail Line has reached Hunt Valley -- with BWI Airport and Penn Station openings just months away -- what comes next? Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer. The Glendening administration has no long-range plan to expand mass transit.

The only thing on the horizon is a modest extension of the light-rail line's southern terminus into Glen Burnie and then Marley Station Mall. That scheme is only in the draft environmental-impact statement stage. Beyond it lies a giant void. Nothing is being devised to give Baltimore-area residents a convenient alternative to the automobile.

This should be a natural for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who emphasizes ''smart growth,'' revitalizing communities and clustering future development near existing infrastructure. Yet that approach won't work if it simply means ever-more cars on already clogged roads. Mass-transit options are imperative.

The current two rapid-transit lines -- Metro and the Central Light Rail -- hit only a few population centers, and even then you need a car to get to the stations.

Still, these two lines are showing steady gains. By 2000, light-rail ridership may hit the 30,000 daily figure that had been forecast for 2010. But potential growth is sharply limited by a lack of parking at most stations, and by the agonizing crawl of light-rail trains along downtown streets and the failure to expand the number of rapid-rail lines.

Parking problems are slowly being addressed, according to Ronald L. Freeland, who took over as mass-transit chief early this year. Adding the vast Hunt Valley Mall and the Warren Road station's 200 to 300 spaces helps. But certain stations -- such as Falls Road and Mount Washington -- are filled to overflowing every day. That effectively precludes new ridership.

The downtown crawl is also receiving attention. Years ago, the Mass Transit Administration bought a software program to permit ''signal pre-emption.'' With the press of a button, a light-rail driver could change downtown traffic signals as the train approached. It could cut a 20-minute light-rail slog through downtown by half or more. But the MTA's software and the city's traffic-signal software don't mesh. Mr. Freeland says a solution to this problem may be at hand.

The state also needs to add a second line of track to the 40 percent of the light-rail route that is now single-tracked -- originally as a money-saving step. With a double-tracked line, MTA could run trains every two minutes during rush hours and after ballgames. It now must stagger trains 10 minutes apart.

These problems are fixable, though the governor has yet to commit much in the way of new dollars to Baltimore's rapid transit. Meanwhile, his Washington-suburban home area boasts the finest and most comprehensive new mass-transit network in the country.

As the booming economy fills state coffers with tax revenues, the governor may find funds for Baltimore's light-rail line. The long-term question remains: Will the state ever create a multi-pronged rapid-rail system similar to the one it helped subsidize in the Washington region?

Mr. Freeland is prodding planners to put some schematics on paper. Among the concepts: a second downtown line from Penn Station south on Guilford Avenue that could become the western part of an eventual downtown loop, and an east-west line from the Social Security complex in Woodlawn into downtown.

But what about connecting the fast-growing White Marsh corridor to downtown? Or a rail link to east Columbia? Or a suburban east-west line from Towson? Nothing is being done on such necessary extensions.

When Marvin Mandel bulldozed the Baltimore rapid-rail initiative through a resistant legislature in the 1970s, he said a complete system would have to be built incrementally, over decades, as in London and New York. But only one governor since Mr. Mandel has had the foresight and moxie to take the next steps: William Donald Schaefer. The light-rail line is his baby. So is the Metro extension to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Even the three light-rail extensions opening this fall are Schaefer creations.

When the history of Baltimore mass transit is written in the year 2100, what will the authors say about Parris Glendening's contribution? He's still got time to include mass-transit expansions in his ''smart growth'' package.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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