Reconnecting parts for better mass transit

April 12, 2000|By Gerald P. Neily and Robert C. Keith

A RECENT Sun editorial was right on target in its hope that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger will "galvanize their colleagues and enroll [Gov. Parris] Glendening in a Smart Growth crusade for mass transit." But if these two activist leaders are to succeed, they need to be ready with a plan for how the money should best be spent. Such a plan is not in place today.

The Mass Transit Administration has a $1.5 billion wish list of rail projects, some of them gathering dust for a decade. The biggest chunk of this money would take the Metro subway to White Marsh by way of Memorial Stadium - which clearly shows the plans need rethinking. Transportation gurus from the MTA, the city and the surrounding counties must put their heads together to offer fresh ideas suited to the new millennium rather than the old.

New thinking is especially needed to build ridership on the painfully under-utilized Metro subway. On the west side, this service originates in Owings Mills, at a park-and-ride center destined for major enhancement under Baltimore County Smart Growth plans. On the east side, it ends at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, with connections to nowhere.

The most cost-effective plan for enhancing the role of the subway is to bring it out of the ground a third of a mile past its present terminus at Hopkins Hospital. The line could be led eastward alongside the Amtrak right of way to a major transportation hub on open land north of Hopkins Bayview Hospital on Eastern Avenue, offering large park-and-ride lots and a springboard for MTA service to White Marsh, Essex, Dundalk and points north and east.

Regional plans already call for a MARC commuter rail stop at Bayview. The need is to broaden this vision to encompass a convergence of services, much as New Carrollton does outside Washington.

Another capital improvement that would bring life to Metro subway and light rail would be a quick and comfortable connection between them at Lexington Market. What's needed is a short passageway on the Clay Street walkway beside the old Hutzler's building, connecting the light rail stop on Howard Street with the subway mezzanine on Eutaw Street.

This would give Baltimore a connected rail transit system, rather than two oddly disconnected lines. Building on this core system, MTA could fine-tune its plan for a rail line extending west from Lexington Market to Security Boulevard and perhaps beyond. This line is part of the long-range plan.

One transportation corridor where no convincing case has been made for light rail is between downtown Baltimore and Columbia, as some have suggested. Express buses cover this route morning and evening in only 23 minutes using Interstate 95. Catonsville-to-downtown express service takes only 16 minutes. Light rail can't beat these times.

To make these existing services more effective, MTA should dress up the buses and run them on at least hourly schedules throughout the day and evening, including "reverse commutes" to bring Baltimore's underemployed work force to suburban jobs. The express buses should also be integrated with suburban bus routes.

Important to the success of these suburban express buses is creating a convenient transportation hub where they can discharge passengers downtown. One promising site is an undeveloped parcel off Eutaw Street between Saratoga and Mulberry streets, just north of Lexington Market. Passengers coming from the south could depart buses at Camden Yards or continue to the Lexington Market hub for transfer to Metro or light rail.

The existing subway is really the city's best opportunity for obtaining a downtown "people mover," at almost no new capital cost. Subway travel time between Lexington Market and Shot Tower, including the stop at Charles Street, is only three minutes. Extra shuttle trains can be added for this short trip so that waiting time can be reduced to match riding time.

Getting more passengers, and consequently more revenues, from services already in place should be the top MTA priority. Bus service exceeds the state's 50 percent fare-box recovery requirement, but the Metro recovers only 38 percent of its costs, and light rail is doing even worse at 31 percent. These disappointing performances drag down the average for the whole system.

MTA needs to focus on integration of its buses and rail lines into a single system that puts the capacities of the rail lines to fuller use. When MTA offers the general public an efficient system it can understand and use, ridership will grow and new fare dollars will come in.

Gerald P. Neily is a former transportation planner for Baltimore City. Robert C. Keith follows transportation issues from his home in Fells Point. Both participate in the regional Transportation Steering Committee's Citizens Advisory Committee, which is a public forum for citizen input.

Getting nowhere

Tomorrow: Bus routes, derived from old streetcar lines, have changed little over the years. but the neighborhoods along have--as have the needs of riders.

Friday: Who makes the call for the state on federally funded projects, why have leaders been so quiet?

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