Light rail expansion may be dud System shortcomings could sour new riders MTA hopes to attract

'Easy to second-guess'

Delays, train changes can be traced to state not providing 2 tracks

October 19, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Burdened by cost-cutting and design compromises, Maryland's much-heralded light rail expansion to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Pennsylvania Station could prove to be an expensive dud.

At least that's the fear of some state officials, who are scrambling to make the system work despite shortcomings that could cause riding light rail to become a potentially arduous experience.

"I will predict that by March of next year, I will get beat up [by public opinion] like you won't believe," said Ronald L. Freeland, head of the state's Mass Transit Administration.

Scheduled to begin daily service by Dec. 10, when BWI's new international terminal is completed, the extensions were meant to add thousands of riders and provide important links with Baltimore's transportation hubs. The construction tops off a $500 million-plus investment in the 5-year-old transit system.

What the new patrons will encounter, though, could sour them to Baltimore's Central Light Rail Line. The shortcomings include: Schedules so tight that any train delayed more than one minute at a station will likely cause delays for trains in both directions on the line.

No direct service to BWI or Penn Station from Hunt Valley or Glen Burnie's Cromwell Station -- or from other stations north of Mount Royal or south of Linthicum. Riders will have to change trains, which could mean standing on a platform with their luggage and waiting up to 17 minutes to make the transfer.

A $6 million Hamburg Street station to be built at the Ravens football stadium that can't be used except for football games or other stadium events.

A shortage of seats on rush-hour trains because the system has too few cars to handle the expansion.

An increased likelihood that a breakdown at an inopportune location could strand thousands of passengers.

Most of these problems can be traced to a single cause: the state's failure to provide dual sets of tracks over the entire length of the 30-mile transit system.

Because there is just a single track along 12.4 miles, or 41 percent, of the rail line, trains going in opposite directions are forced to take turns sharing the same space -- like drivers encountering a series of one-lane bridges.

In the past, planners were able to avoid stop-and-go rail traffic by spacing trains 15 minutes apart. The added complications of providing service to BWI and Penn Station will require a longer wait between trains in many cases.

"The die is cast," said Freeland, who was named MTA administrator two years ago. "I have to play with the hand that was dealt me."

The deck was stacked almost a decade ago when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed building Maryland's first modern trolley system. Working from initially sketchy research, transportation officials badly underestimated its cost at $290 million.

Since the 22.5-mile Timonium-to-Glen Burnie base line was entirely state-funded -- largely because a famously impatient governor was unwilling to wait for federal approvals -- a premium was placed on cost-cutting.

At the time, single track made sense. Planners knew they could make that sacrifice without seriously hurting the initial service.

But in the ensuing years, no attempt has been made to correct the shortcoming. No one knows how much it would cost to add a second set of tracks along with the necessary crossovers and sidings, although officials have speculated from $40 million to $100 million.

"They fundamentally crippled the system," O. James Lighthizer, who served as state transportation secretary during Schaefer's second term, said of the system's planners. "To have a useful, state-of-the-art system, you need the double track, and now the chicken is coming home to roost."

The problems could spell serious trouble for a system that is supposed to attract 63 percent more daily riders in three years, growing from the current 22,000 to 36,000.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has shown little interest in expanding Baltimore's light rail or subway systems. Despite his administration's recent efforts to limit sprawl-type development, the state Transportation Department continues to spend more than twice as much money building highways as on public transit.

The $106 million expansion to BWI and Penn Station, as well as the segment to Hunt Valley that opened last month, were largely paid for with federal dollars.

The state's six-year transportation plan anticipates no major investment in light rail and contains no plans for double-tracking through at least 2002, although the MTA has recently begun a study of the issue. Officials foresee only one significant addition to light rail in the next two decades -- a three-mile extension to downtown Glen Burnie and Marley Station Mall.

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