On the slow track

Our view : Light rail woes a too-familiar story for transit riders

May 09, 2008

The timing of the latest light rail debacle could hardly be worse. Since the double-tracking of Baltimore's system was completed in 2006, ridership has doubled. And with the rising cost of gasoline, it's likely more people are checking out their transit options.

To be fair, it's difficult to fault the Maryland Transit Administration for its cautious response to a cracked car wheel. When wheels fail on trains, bad things can happen.

The agency has not only brought in experts to investigate the April 23 incident but also greatly intensified the maintenance of the remaining fleet. As a result, more cars are out of service at any one time, and the system has become fraught with overcrowding and delays.

But this kind of subpar performance is not going to win light rail any new fans, and that's a depressingly familiar situation. Light rail has long been a half-funded, half-realized shadow of what Baltimore transit ought to be. It doesn't go where people need to go, it slogs through downtown at a snail's pace, and it has suffered its share of crises.

The MTA doesn't have a reserve fleet of light rail cars to press into service in case of an emergency. The agency has only a limited number of buses (and, perhaps more critically, bus drivers) to call out when the need arises.

Yet some within the agency have the temerity to complain that the public has an unfairly negative image of light rail. That may be true, but the MTA ought to be providing the gold standard of customer service under the circumstances.

What would a private company do - offer free doughnuts and coffee? Station goodwill ambassadors at every stop? Hire an outside contractor with shuttle buses? Perhaps all of the above.

The MTA wants to break ground on a possible east-west light rail extension from Woodlawn to Canton within the next several years. Such an expansion could prove extremely helpful. But it won't mean much if the existing line is a hassle to use because it's unreliable or the experience is unpleasant.

Baltimore needs an effective transit system now more than ever. One cracked wheel may be just a temporary setback - or it may be emblematic of Maryland's semi-stranded approach to public transportation.

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