As the state begins in earnest next month a long-overdue $153 million project to upgrade Baltimore's light rail line, riders will face longer waits, more delays and bus rides to get around construction work.
The disruptions, detailed by transit officials Friday, will last almost three years while the state adds a second track to 12 miles of the light rail route. When the project is complete, the entire 29-mile route will have two tracks, increasing the reliability and, potentially, the frequency of trains, officials say.
But until then, riders will have to wait 20 minutes for a train at most stations, instead of the usual 17. The main light rail line will be broken into two loops, so trains will not run its entire length as they do now. And trains will not be able to use portions of the track under construction. Riders will have to get off their train, take a shuttle bus to the next stop beyond the construction, then board another train.
The inconveniences threaten to further diminish the light rail's already low ridership - now at about 27,000 trips a day.
"One of the basic complaints about light rail is that it takes so doggone long, and one reason is we don't have the double track," said Eugene Peterson, chairman of the Transit Riders League. "This is going to be a major improvement in terms of service."
Starting Aug. 31, trains will run two different loops on portions of the light rail line - which extends from Glen Burnie to Hunt Valley - instead of running the entire length. Trains originating in Hunt Valley will terminate at Camden Yards, and trains that begin in Glen Burnie will end their run at North Avenue.
A third loop, from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Penn Station, will continue to run as normal, though trains on that route also will operate every 20 minutes instead of every 17.
Maryland Transit Administration officials say they don't expect ridership to decline, because light rail commuters are used to inconveniences. And riders will thank them in the long run.
"I would hope that our customers would not only understand [the disruptions] but are perhaps accustomed to occasional delays on the light rail system, knowing that ultimately this is going to benefit them," said Robert Mowery, the MTA's deputy administrator for operations.
The agency has scheduled eight public hearings between Tuesday and Aug. 7 to explain the changes.
When the work is complete in March 2006, light rail trains will be able to run faster and more frequently, officials said. Riders will have safer, more reliable trips because trains going in opposite directions won't be sharing a track, correcting a historic handicap of the light rail system.
Baltimore's light rail line opened on April 6, 1992 - the same day as Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Both were products of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's "Do it now!" philosophy. That attitude got light rail built - but much of it with just a single track because the state couldn't afford more.
Schaefer wanted light rail for Baltimore right away, with or without federal assistance. The single track worked initially but could not handle increasing passenger loads.
"It should have been built this way in the first place," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., a member of the steering committee of the Transit Riders League. "This is a corrective action." He expects a few riders to desert the light rail, but most to put up with the inconvenience.
"The citizens have come to expect this," Moore said. "Baltimoreans tend to be very patient, and, sadly, the expectations of quality of service and quantity of service have to be raised."
The light rail is a single track in much of North Baltimore and Baltimore County, as well as between Linthicum and Ferndale. In those sections, trains going in opposite directions are forced to take turns sharing the same space - like drivers encountering a series of one-lane bridges.
The result is that trains only run every 17 minutes - even at the height of rush hour - which contributes to the light rail's reputation as a poky train of last resort. The light rail is the MTA's poorest performing mode of transit: Fares cover just 24 percent of the $30 million operating cost.
With double tracking, the MTA could run trains as often as it liked, so long as it had enough of them. Officials hope increased ridership will eventually allow them to approach the frequency of the subway - which leaves Owings Mills every seven minutes during rush hour.
But Mowery said the agency has no immediate plans to buy more light rail cars, which means even when the double-tracking project is complete, trains may still run only every 17 minutes.
"We would hope that ridership would increase and that would be the justification to purchase additional equipment," he said. In the meantime, he expects riders to adjust to the disruptions, including the transfers to buses, to get around work sites.
He said the MTA will set aside 55 buses to augment the light rail service and will post signs noting where the bus "bridges" will be in effect, so riders will know in advance where they'll have to transfer. He also said riders will not have to wait for buses; they'll be at stations when trains arrive.
"I believe riders will adapt to this," Mowery said, "and ultimately, with the advantages that double-tracking brings, it's going to be worth the wait."