Save time by car, cash by light rail Test finds advantages and hassles for each on journey to BWI

December 11, 1997|By Marina Sarris and Karen Masterson | Marina Sarris and Karen Masterson,SUN STAFF

Should you drive or ride the new light rail connection to the airport? It depends on what's more valuable to you: time or money.

From Hunt Valley, you're apt to save 30 minutes by car, but you'll spend at least $14 more for the privilege.

That's the result of a test by The Sun this week. Two reporters set out from the Hunt Valley light rail stop about 7: 45 a.m., one by car and the other by light rail. Their goal: to reach the TWA ticket counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport the recommended hour before a 10: 15 flight to New York.

As promised by state officials, the rail rider enjoyed a glitch-free trip that took 93 minutes and cost $1.35 one way. Two small problems: The light rail car has no place for luggage, and riders from Hunt Valley have to transfer en route.

Add $1.50 to your costs if you need to rent a luggage cart at the BWI station, about five minutes by foot from the domestic ticket counters and right at the door of the new international terminal.

By contrast, the driver reached the TWA counter 30 minutes faster, but the cost, at 31.5 cents a mile plus $6 for one day of satellite parking, was $16.08. Her problems? Traffic jams, aggressive Beltway drivers and having to take a shuttle bus from the cheaper, distant parking lot.

The Maryland Mass Transit Administration hopes more people will make the comparison and choose light rail. On Saturday, it began light rail service to Penn Station in Baltimore and BWI Airport in Anne Arundel County.

"It's been operating on time, and it's been operating smoothly," MTA spokesman Frank Fulton said yesterday.

For penny-pinchers, light rail couldn't be beat. Free overnight parking is available at the Warren Road and Patapsco stations.

But riding light rail to and from BWI is not an option for certain airline passengers -- for example, those leaving or landing late at night -- because the system generally does not operate from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Interest in the new BWI stop varied among light rail riders this week.

Retirees Irmgard and Karl Beetz of Timonium took light rail from Lutherville to BWI, with a transfer at Mount Royal, as a kind of test drive. "It was a very nice experience," Mrs. Beetz said. They expect to repeat the trip this winter when they fly out of BWI to visit relatives.

But another light rail rider, Ann Liberatore of Cockeysville, said she did not think she would use the service to BWI. "An hour and a half to get there is too long. Everyone's time is valuable," said Liberatore, a sales consultant. "You would have to leave home three hours early."

Gary Alpert, who lives near Mount Washington, said he would use his time on light rail to relax. "I can get on the train and sit and relax and get on the plane," he said.

Beltway congestion

Certainly, a light rail trip can be more predictable than the rush-hour slog along the Baltimore Beltway. For a reporter making that drive this week, the headaches began on Interstate 83, as traffic slowed north of the Beltway to between 20 mph and 35 mph.

On the Beltway, congestion or construction slowed and occasionally stopped traffic. Some drivers were rude. One woman appeared to speed up to prevent cars from entering her lane.

Meanwhile, on light rail, passengers experienced an uneventful ride as the trains kept very close to schedule.

Light rail operates as two lines -- one from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie and one from Penn Station to BWI -- so a rider from Hunt Valley had to change trains to reach the airport. A reporter waited nine minutes at a platform at Mount Royal -- a minute longer than scheduled -- to board a BWI-bound train.

If you don't consult rail schedules carefully, you could wait up to 25 minutes on an open-air platform for a transfer -- a potential problem in bad weather.

One light rail user this week, Dan Hudson of Herndon, Va., took Amtrak from Washington to Penn Station and then used the new connection from Penn to go to a downtown hotel.

He had one suitcase (with wheels), which he propped next to him on the sparsely populated light rail car. The lack of a luggage area on cars could prove awkward for passengers lugging several suitcases and on a crowded train.

"This is great," Hudson said of light rail. He thought about taking a taxi to his hotel but said he doesn't like cabs. His hotel was a block from the Convention Center stop.

No luggage racks

The absence of luggage racks could discourage some fliers from taking the train, one light rail rider said. "The taxi drivers don't have anything to worry about," said Jim Haines of Pigtown. "How many people are going to drag 20 or 30 pounds of bags on the train?"

A reporter had no trouble carrying two medium-sized bags from the BWI rail stop to the TWA ticket counter. However, someone who is frail or hauling many heavy bags might find the walk daunting.

No skycaps were visible at the time. The airport is not supplying light rail riders with free luggage carts, a state spokeswoman said last week, but rental carts are available.

Light rail schedules can be obtained by calling 410-539-5000.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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