State to close light rail line to add track

MTA to shut down service south of Camden Yards from February to October

`Better to get it over with'

Buses to serve thousands of commuters, sports fans inconvenienced by project

January 30, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The state will shut down the light rail line south of Camden Yards for about seven months, severing the city's rail link with Baltimore-Washington International Airport and forcing some Orioles and Ravens fans to find different routes to the stadiums.

The shutdown from Feb. 28 until October will allow the Maryland Transit Administration to add a second track to portions of the line that have a single track. Single tracking has limited the frequency of trains and contributed to persistent low ridership.

About 60 percent of the light rail's 27,000 daily riders board south of Camden Yards. Shuttle buses will be provided and will stop at all stations along the nine-mile section of rail to be closed. Officials hope riders will use the buses rather than giving up on mass transit and switching to cars.

While the shutdown will inconvenience thousands of commuters and people who use the light rail to get to events downtown, it will allow the state to finish double-tracking the southern half of the line five months ahead of schedule. About four miles of the line south of Camden Yards are a single track.

"We believe it's just better to get it over with," MTA Administrator Robert L. Smith said yesterday. "We want to do this as thoroughly and efficiently as possible."

He said extra shuttles will be on hand before and after baseball games to take passengers to and from the ballpark. The MTA estimates that up to 2,300 people per Orioles game take light rail from stops south of Camden Yards.

After work on the southern portion of the line is finished in October, officials will turn their attention to the northern section, where about six miles are a single track. That work is scheduled to be finished in March 2006. Officials are considering shutting down the northern section next year to accelerate the project.

`Marketing the service'

When it's finished, the MTA will face the challenge of increasing ridership of the light rail, which has struggled to find an audience and is heavily dependent on state subsidy. Passenger fares account for just 23 percent of the operating cost; the rest comes from the state.

"The ridership on light rail is something we clearly are not satisfied with," Smith said. "I think we can do a better job of marketing the service itself."

The entire double-tracking project is expected to cost $153 million and will correct a historic handicap of the light rail line, which was initially built with a single track in most places to save money. The state paid for the light rail, which opened in April 1992, without federal funding. The 30-mile line runs from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie and BWI.

The single track has hobbled the system by limiting how often trains can run. On single-track 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 run every 17 minutes - even during rush hour. The construction has slowed trains even more - they now leave suburban stations once every 20 minutes. And starting Sunday, the time between trains will increase to 30 minutes during non-rush hours and on weekends, a cost-saving measure.

Officials had planned to double-track the light rail in segments by shutting down specific sections and providing shuttle buses around those sections. But after trying that last fall, riders complained about having to transfer from the train to a bus and back again.

Hardship for riders

Terri DeBord, who lives in Millersville and works in Mount Vernon, stopped taking the light rail when the construction forced her to transfer.

"You can take it to one point, but then you have to get off and take a bus," said DeBord, 43, a secretary at the Goldseker Foundation. "So I thought ... I might as well just drive."

She said she will be happy to return to the light rail in October, when the southern section reopens. But for riders without cars, DeBord said, the shutdown will be more of a hardship. Taking shuttle buses instead of the light rail will add at least 10 minutes to most people's trips, officials said.

Express shuttles to downtown will run from the three busiest southern stops - Glen Burnie/Cromwell Station, North Linthicum and Patapsco. Those shuttles will run from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

There will not be an express shuttle to BWI. While the shutdown will make it harder for passengers to get to the airport - transferring luggage from a light rail train to a bus is no easy feat - officials note that few BWI passengers use the light rail.

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