Md. officials unveil vision for Baltimore mass transit

Doubling of service, rail links to suburbs

January 24, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Hoping to link Baltimore and its suburbs in a manner similar to Washington's vaunted Metro subway system, Maryland transit officials unveiled a plan yesterday to more than double the region's light rail and subway service over the next 20 to 40 years.

The blueprint, mapping out 52 miles of new track, is the first since the 1960s to suggest linking rail lines that would extend from the heart of downtown like spokes on a wheel.

Stretching into surrounding counties, the proposed lines would serve points such as Arundel Mills Mall, Dundalk, White Marsh, Towson and Woodlawn, with the lines converging in the city at Penn Station, Charles Center and Camden Yards.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari called the plan "critically important and long overdue."

"It's a real reflection of how anxious we all are to lay out a vision for future rail transit," he said. "This plan will not sit on the shelf."

If the plan is well received during public workshops, he expects it to be included in Maryland's bid for long-term federal transportation funds next year. If the state succeeds in gaining federal funding, work on one or two major segments could begin soon after, Porcari said.

Baltimore's subway and light rail lines have long been criticized as limited and disjointed, serving only a small percentage of potential transit riders.

Under the plan, the number of residents living within walking distance of a rail stop would increase from 79,500 to 203,500, and the number living within a mile of a station would nearly double, to 757,000, officials estimate.

The proposal would expand transit rail service from 43 miles to 95 miles and the number of stations from 55 to 112. The Washington area's Metro system comprises 106 miles of track with 85 stations.

Still in draft form, the plan leaves many questions unresolved. It is uncertain which lines would be built for light rail and which for subway, though planners suggest that tunnels under the city make the most sense in many places.

The price, and how it would be paid, is the biggest unknown. Pressed for an estimate, officials said the price tag for yesterday's proposal could exceed $5 billion.

The existing 29-mile light rail system cost $610 million, and the 14-mile subway $1.3 billion.

Despite major questions, the proposal is winning plaudits from environmentalists and transit advocates.

"Obviously, there are tremendous details to be worked out and there will be some intense discussions," said Brad Rogers of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide group that pushes for Smart Growth. "I think lots of people in the region see the value of a connected system like this."

The head of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association was more skeptical.

"Our main concern is not so much the capital costs of the system but whether they're going to be self-sustaining," said Brian Holmes, the group's director. "How are they going to pay for it?"

Although no answer to that question is expected for some time, many of the plan's creators asserted yesterday that there is growing consensus among state and local officials that comprehensive transit is critical to Baltimore's future.

"From a business community point of view, if we don't get off the dime, we're in deep trouble economically because we're going to grind to a halt," said Baltimore developer Bill Struever, a member of the 23-person panel appointed by Porcari to draft the plan.

Last fall, the group began a series of workshops to hear residents describe what they need from a regional rail service. The panel researched traffic congestion, travel patterns, areas of future growth and major destinations.

John A. Agro Jr., co-chairman of the group and former head of the state transit administration, said the plan "speaks not only to where people need to go but want to go, that will serve the complete lifestyle - education, entertainment, health services."

The four proposed lines have stops at key destinations - hospitals, universities, shopping centers - and at revitalization areas such as Inner Harbor East and Madison Square on the city's west side, where the Johns Hopkins Biotech Park is planned.

"To embark on any effort, you have to have a vision of what you want to accomplish," Agro said. "My hope is that it will have broad appeal and that most of our citizens will look at it and say, `This makes sense.'"

Major additions under the plan would include:

Green Line. Extension of the existing subway line 16 miles northeast, from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University, Hamilton, and Overlea. At White Marsh, the line would branch, with one leg going to a commuter station near Interstate 95 and the other to the Middle River area, targeted by Baltimore County for future business growth. Travel time between downtown and White Marsh: 26 minutes.

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