Light rail to extend reach Stops at BWI Airport and Penn Station will begin tomorrow

Smooth start expected

Two new connections are seen as boost to area's transit system

December 05, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

The long-awaited light rail extensions to Baltimore-Washington Airport and Penn Station open for business tomorrow, and officials hope they will provide a major boost to Baltimore-area mass transit.

State transportation officials expect a smooth opening, despite problems that have beset the project for months. Engineers are working on a technical improvement that was expected to shorten light rail trips within Baltimore, where two lines will be operating for the first time.

Also, because of a manufacturing delay, the system will not have extra cars in service. And, as of yesterday, new schedules were not ready -- though the state vowed to make them available today.

Still, tests indicate the new system will run as planned, said Ronald L. Freeland, administrator of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration.

"The grand opening is going to be a grand beginning," he said. "We anticipate a significant number of people will start to ride it early on."

State Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead said the new light rail connections are "important in terms of economic impact as well as the tourism and traveler connection."

The opening coincides with the completion of BWI's new international terminal.

The new light rail line and the terminal will be dedicated today and open for business tomorrow.

Federal and state transportation officials have praised the light rail project for creating vital connections with the area's air and railroad systems.

However, the project has been burdened by cost cutting and design compromises that have left parts of the line with a single track that must be shared by trains going in opposite directions at different times.

In addition, a supplier failed to deliver 18 cars planned for the expansion.

As a result, some riders will have to change trains, some cars might be crowded, and some trips will be lengthy.

A ride from Hunt Valley to BWI is supposed to take from 89 to 106 minutes and require a train change.

The light rail system will operate as two separate lines: a main line from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie and a new one from Penn Station to BWI Airport.

The two lines will overlap from the Mount Royal to Linthicum stations, where riders from points north of Mount Royal

and south of Linthicum must change trains to reach BWI or the railroad station.

The Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie line will run every 17 minutes, rather than the current 15 minutes.

The Penn to BWI line will run every 34 minutes.

However, where the lines overlap, riders can catch trains at intervals that alternate between 8 minutes and 17 minutes if they're not traveling beyond Linthicum or Mount Royal.

'Pre-emption' delayed

Officials had hoped to have completed technical improvements that would guarantee shorter trips on both lines along Howard Street in Baltimore by triggering traffic signals to give priority to light rail trains.

However, difficulties, including a downtown sinkhole last month, have delayed that improvement, called "traffic pre-emption," said Frank S. Waesche III, MTA's director of engineering.

The MTA will be able to meet the new train schedule, but an unforeseen glitch could create problems, Waesche said. Without traffic pre-emption, he said, "the schedule has to run like a Swiss watch."

Winstead and Freeland hope the new line will attract travelers using BWI and the Penn train station, as well as daily commuters who work in the growing job center around BWI Airport.

A one-way light rail trip costs $1.35. The system offers free one-day parking at many stations, but only two, Patapsco and Warren Road, will permit parking for more than a day.

Travelers also will not find luggage racks on light rail cars.

Five-minute walk

Once they arrive at the airport, many light rail riders won't have to haul their luggage far. The domestic passenger terminal is about a five-minute walk from the station, and the airport will offer free luggage carts near the light rail stop.

Neil Shpritz, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership Inc., a nonprofit organization of area employers, said the new airport connection will offer a transportation alternative for workers around BWI.

The partnership plans to operate frequent shuttle service from the light rail station at the BWI Business Park to area work sites, Shpritz said.

"This area desperately needs increased mass transit," he said.

Reducing travel times

Shpritz said he hopes the MTA can reduce travel times to make light rail more appealing to riders traveling longer distances on the system -- a goal shared by state transportation officials.

The BWI and Penn spurs are part of a $106 million light rail upgrade that includes its extension from Timonium to Hunt Valley, which opened in September.

The stations on that leg are attracting most of the 3,000 new daily riders that they were projected to draw by 2000, Freeland said.

Freeland expects the BWI link to attract an additional 3,000 daily riders and Penn to draw 1,000 new daily riders within three years.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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