State hopes transit lots prove to be `gold mines'

Department offers 10 sites for private redevelopment

December 27, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The state has launched a program to lease or sell MARC station and park-and-ride lots in the Baltimore-Washington metro area to developers, hoping to boost ridership - and revenue - in a time of lean budgets.

Ten bus, train and subway parking lots from Anne Arundel to Frederick counties are already on the block. Officials hope to pitch a new set to developers each year.

State transportation officials say they want to turn dreary bus and train stops into transit jewels by inviting developers to build shops, homes and offices on underused parking lots. The goal, they say, is to lure new riders with amenities such as cafes and dry cleaners and with apartments and offices a short walk from mass transit.

Officials in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration acknowledge that the program is also an attractive revenue source for the cash-strapped Department of Transportation, which has said it needs an extra $300 million a year to fully fund programs.

Many local officials embrace the plan as a boon to neighborhoods near transit stops and as an antidote to sprawl. But others are skeptical, especially because hundreds of parking spaces for riders may vanish.

`Not in the cards'

In Anne Arundel County, plans to remake the Severna Park Park & Ride - and eliminate as many as 130 of the 180 parking spots - are under attack from bus commuters, a farmers' market, the Greater Severna Park Chamber of Commerce and bicyclists who ride a nearby trail.

"I don't buy that they're doing it for the public good," said Margaret S. Coleman, 58, a legal assistant who has commuted by bus from Severna Park to Baltimore for 17 years. Over the past decade, she said, transit officials have closed two lots where she had parked for the bus. "The harder it becomes for people to park, the less they're going to take public transportation."

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has vowed to block any change to the Severna Park lot's residential zoning. "If there had been any intention to sell it for high-end commercial," Owens said, "that is absolutely not in the cards."

Michael Sarbanes of the nonprofit Transit Riders League of Metropolitan Baltimore said the program is worthy if the priority is to increase ridership, not close the state budget gap. He was troubled by a message - "We're mining for gold!" - on the Web site for the transportation agency's real estate office.

"If you end up selling off these valuable assets because you're quote `mining for gold,' that would be bad public policy and wasting a really valuable resource," he said.

`Have to be practical'

State officials say they see no conflict in trying to expand ridership with construction that may cost parking spaces. The truth, they say, is that most of the targeted lots are nowhere near full.

"Transit ridership in the Baltimore region has declined in the last 10 years," said Samuel F. Minnitte Jr., the real estate chief for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "You can hope for the future, but you also have to be practical for what the financial realities are today."

The state hopes to award its first round of contracts by July.

The transit-oriented development program, as it is called, is a more aggressive and commercially minded version of Smart Growth initiatives begun in the previous administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

It is the first time the state has systematically evaluated the 88 transit stations and 33 park-and-ride lots in the Baltimore-Washington metro area to identify the most marketable.

The Transportation Department had tried haphazardly in the past couple of years to lease or sell land around a few transit stops. It succeeded at Symphony Center in Baltimore. But at Owings Mills Town Center, a $220 million proposal to surround a metro station with homes and offices is mired in a legal dispute with the land's former owners.

The new real estate program dovetails with Ehrlich's request - upon taking office with a $1.2 billion budget shortfall last year - that all agencies catalog their real-estate assets and sell any surplus.

In some states, transit-oriented development programs offer subsidies or tax breaks to developers to build near stations. But Maryland's is explicitly crafted, in part, as a source of money for the Transportation Department.

"If we can find a partner in the private sector who can create development," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said, "that promotes transit as well as generates profit."

The department has told developers that it may let them charge riders a small parking fee.

The program's early results are mixed. The state received 11 bids for seven lots by last month's deadline. The other three sites - the Rosedale Park & Ride lot in Baltimore County, and the Savage and Edgewood MARC stations - received no bids.

A few developers say the long-term leases wanted by the state and the need for costly parking structures have kept them away.

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