Light rail's readiness

April 19, 2006

The American Public Transportation Association reports that public transit use in America is growing fast. Last year, rail and bus systems provided 9.7 billion trips. That's 25.1 percent growth over the past decade, compared with 22.5 percent growth for highways. And within the public transit world, the fastest-growing mode is - drum roll, please - light rail. From New Jersey to Los Angeles, the various forms of light rail, from modern streetcars (like Baltimore's) to heritage trolleys, are reporting double-digit ridership increases.

So how does Baltimore's beleaguered light rail system compare? Not as poorly as some believe. While its problems are obvious - slow downtown service and low ridership chief among them - there are signs that some of those long-standing problems may be turning around.

First is the matter of ridership. Since peaking at nearly 30,000 in 2002, Baltimore's daily light rail ridership has dropped to as little as half that and probably even less. That's chiefly because long stretches of track had to be closed to accommodate double-tracking, a $154 million project to eliminate the system's bottlenecks.

But since that project was completed in February, the Maryland Transit Administration has clearly bolstered light rail service. For most of the system, there's a much shorter potential wait for a train. It's not unreasonable to believe that light rail can not only recapture its ridership of years past, but exceed it.

Thanks to some recent changes to Baltimore's downtown traffic signal system, light rail cars have also started moving several critical minutes faster down Howard Street, and further improvements are in the works. Rising gas prices and growing congestion on the region's roads have given potential riders even more incentives to take light rail.

Now it's up to the MTA to capitalize on this opportunity. What's needed is a major marketing push to attract new riders, particularly from the suburbs. Better yet, the MTA should be investing in reliable ticketing machines, cleaner stations and improved security. Customers would notice.

The MTA must soon decide what to do about a proposed Red Line connecting Woodlawn with Canton; a light rail extension looks attractive. Baltimore can replicate the light rail successes of cities such as Denver and Portland, Ore., if highway-oriented state transportation officials will seize this unique opportunity.

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