Ravens' light rail has heavy price tag New station has ramps, footbridge and 12 times normal cost $6 million

July 03, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

This summer, the state will open a light rail station at the new Ravens' stadium that is 12 times more expensive than average and will be used sparingly.

Because of problems with the light rail schedule, the $6 million stop will be used only about 20 days a year when football games, concerts or other events are scheduled for the new stadium, state mass transit officials said.

The Hamburg Street station is so costly because it includes features not usually found at light rail stops. Those include two long ramps and a pedestrian bridge to take swarms of passengers safely and quickly over the light rail and CSX railroad tracks next to the stadium.

The state paid $5 million for the stop and the Ravens kicked in $1 million, said Anthony Brown, spokesman of the Mass Transit Administration, the state agency that operates light rail. The average light rail stop costs $500,000 to build.

Despite the high cost, said Del. John F. Slade III, a Southern Maryland Democrat who chairs a transportation subcommittee, "it probably is a good investment because the area around the stadium is probably an area for future development."

But Democratic Sen. Ida G. Ruben, vice chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the cost of the stop dismays her because she opposed using public funds for the bulk of the $220 million cost of the new stadium. "I'm very disturbed about what it is costing the taxpayer," she said.

The agency was faced with several obstacles in designing the station. "The problem here is the location," said MTA Group Director Sam Carnaggio. Without the ramps and bridge, fans might be injured trying to cross tracks in large groups at the same time, he said. "We would have had to usher fans across 700 at a time," he said.

At Oriole Park at Camden Yards, fans cross light rail tracks. However, there are fewer riders, and they spread out their departures over longer periods of time than football fans, Carnaggio said.

Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, defended the state's decision to "do it right" when it came to building the stadium stop, rather than opting for a less expensive but "half-baked station that's inconvenient" to riders.

"We tried to generate a facility that would make it attractive to fans, not only for 10 football games but, we hope, [a total] of 20 major events a year," Hoffman said.

The stadium stop cannot be used full time because officials fear it would confound a light rail schedule that is already stretched to its limits.

The state and city have not fully implemented a technical improvement to the light rail system that was supposed to be in place by last December, when the MTA opened a light rail line from Penn Station to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The technical change -- called traffic light pre-emption -- is supposed to shorten the trip on Howard Street in downtown Baltimore from 18 minutes to 12 minutes by controlling traffic signals so that priority is given to light rail trains.

But, due to the city's aging traffic computer system, engineers have been unable to get pre-emption to work during rush hours. As a result, trains can be slowed by car traffic and backups. "Right now, Howard Street is a very big challenge," Carnaggio said.

Single-track obstacle

Another major obstacle to full-time use of the Hamburg Street station is its proximity to the single-track bridge over the Middle Branch.

From that point south, northbound and southbound trains have to use the same track, gumming up the light rail schedule. To cut costs almost a decade ago, the state decided not to build a dual set of tracks over the entire line. Currently, 40 percent of the 30-mile system has single tracking.

Handling hordes of Ravens fans leaving a game will likely pose a challenge because of the need for precise timing on the single-track portions of the system. Extra trains can't be dispatched without interfering with the complex train schedule. "It's a timing issue," Carnaggio said.

A new, six-year U.S. transportation bill contains money for Maryland to build a second track for those portions that lack it. The money has been authorized by Congress but not yet appropriated. State officials say they do not know when that will happen.

Most football games are held on Sundays, traditionally a slow ridership day for light rail.

The light rail system normally carries about 3,200 people on Sundays (down from a weekday average of about 12,200), but the MTA expects 8,000 to 10,000 additional passengers for Ravens games.

The system usually operates from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays, but that schedule will be altered depending on game times to accommodate fans, said Brown, the MTA spokesman. Any additional operating costs will be offset by fares from stadium-bound riders, he said.

The Hamburg Street stop will open in time for a Ravens' practice on July 30 open to season-ticket holders, said MTA spokesman Frank Fulton.

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