Nothing makes Robin Ullman happier than bumper-to-bumper gridlock on the Jones Falls Expressway. The nightmarish traffic reports remind her, on a daily basis, why she takes the Baltimore Metro.
"It sure beats the JFX at rush hour," the public defender, who lives in Owings Mills, said yesterday morning, as she zipped to her downtown job on a half-empty subway car. Total travel time: 25 minutes.
Yes, Baltimore has a subway. A few people even ride it.
State officials are betting that a lot more people will ditch their cars for the train in the short term if the subway is extended from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University and if a rail line is built from Woodlawn to Fells Point. Ultimately, the Baltimore rail system would add 66 miles of track and 68 stations at a cost of $12 billion.
Some experts call it a risky bet, while others say it's long overdue.
"They're fools!" said Jonathan Richmond, a Harvard researcher who studied Baltimore's transit system in 1998. "First of all, they're not going to get the funding in today's climate. And why do you need to spend all this money on subways?"
He said the city won't persuade commuters to give up driving. Baltimore traffic, he said, just isn't that bad.
29th in traffic woes
Baltimore ranks 29th in the nation for roadway congestion, with 22 million vehicle miles traveled daily. By comparison, Washington, D.C., ranks third, with 34 million daily vehicle miles.
"I think we're heading for worse traffic, and if we wait until it's total gridlock, we'll be kicking ourselves," said Dan Pontious, director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership. "We should really be forward-thinking right now."
State planners and public transit advocates say they're convinced a comprehensive rail system will work in Baltimore. They say the subway proves it. The 15.5-mile line from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins averages 50,000 daily riders - the most in its 19-year history.
Many of them are white-collar workers who live in the northwest suburbs. At the Owings Mills station yesterday, these commuters moved briskly in their suits and heels, toting briefcases and laptop computers. But the cars leaving the station, even at rush hour, had plenty of empty seats.
"I can read the paper, put on makeup, take care of little odds and ends," said Ullman.
Her daily subway trips are heavily subsidized by the state. The subway's operating cost was $30.3 million last year. The revenue from passengers was $10.3 million. The state made up the difference.
Overhaul of cars
And the state is now pumping even more money into the subway, in a bid to boost ridership and keep the trains running. Some $80 million will be spent over the next two years to overhaul all 100 subway cars.
They will get new brakes, wheels, floors and interiors. Electronic signs will be added inside the cars and in the stations. And four cameras will be added to every car for safety.
The state is also in the midst of a $45 million program to fix the elevators and escalators. And the state is spending $73 million to implement the Smart Card fare-box system, which will allow customers to use the same card to ride the subway, light rail, MARC and buses.
"You've got to make transit more accessible, convenient and comfortable if you want to get more people on board," said Jack Cahalan, state Transportation Department spokesman.
No link to light rail
It would also help, riders said, if the subway connected with the light rail and the MARC. None of the lines intersect, though the subway and light rail come within a block of each other at Lexington Market.
People who want to transfer must climb out of the subway, pass through the turnstiles, walk a block on a city street, then wait for a light rail car and use another ticket to get on.
"It's pretty clear: We don't have a rail system," said Pontious. "I don't know of anybody who says, `I took the Metro to the light rail.'"
It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the state was building the light rail in the early 1990s, officials wanted to connect it with the subway. But it proved to be far too expensive.
"The idea with light rail was that we were building it on the cheap," said Henry M. Kay, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration. "Metro is 60 feet underground and you're on the surface with light rail. It would have taken something really heroic to create an underground connection between them."
Planners said the connection would have almost doubled the cost of the $460 million light rail line. And that killed the idea because the state was paying for the line on its own. The subway, on the other hand, cost $1.3 billion and came with hefty federal assistance.
"You know it's not a system," Kay said, "because people aren't doing midday short hops - discretionary things like they do in Washington."
About 1 in 8 Washington-area residents use the Metro every day, compared with 1 in 32 Baltimore-area residents riding the subway and light rail.
But Kay believes Baltimore can sustain the 109-mile rail system that has been proposed. Planners envision six lines extending from downtown to the suburbs, with stops at major shopping centers, business districts and universities. The state will ask the federal government next year for money to get the project started.
For those riding the subway yesterday, it was the minor inconveniences that mattered most.
They note that the ticket machines don't take dollar bills, even though the fare is $1.35. Passengers must use a bill changing machine to get dollar coins, then take them to the ticket machine.
"I've missed several trains because of that," said Mike Bohn, 54, a city worker standing on a lonely platform at the Charles Center stop yesterday morning. "The city shouldn't be building parking garages downtown if they really want the rail to be successful."