Light rail's promise remains unfulfilled — except on game days

The light rail cars heading south toward Camden Yards were jammed with orange-clad fans — and a few in red — before the Orioles' game against the rival Boston Red Sox.

As the train rumbled down Howard Street on Friday evening, Harry and Helen Page said they've taken light rail to O's games since the ballpark opened 25 years ago. The Elizabethtown, Pa., couple said they avoid parking problems downtown.

"Without it, you'd've had a real nightmare," said Harry Page, 77.

It's just what Gov. William Donald Schaefer envisioned when he pushed to build Baltimore's light rail system so it debuted alongside the new ballpark on Opening Day 1992. With limited parking around Oriole Park at Camden Yards, fans needed another way to get to the game. Now thousands take the train.

But unlike Camden Yards, a home run for design and fan experience that inspired a wave of urban, retro-style ballparks, the 25-year-old rail line's promise as a transit solution for Baltimore remains largely unfulfilled. While the trains are crowded before and after Orioles and Ravens games — and somewhat busy at rush hour — ridership remains below projections, and the north-south line has not become part of a larger, integrated transit system.

"For what it was going to do itself, it's been successful," said Ken Goon, who oversaw construction of the light rail as director of planning for what is now the Maryland Transit Administration.

"The disappointing aspect is, along with the Metro, the light rail was seen as a next link in a region-wide system. That's kind of not progressed. The central light rail line would be more utilized as a part of a growing and larger system."

Baltimore's transit system remains a hodgepodge, with a much-criticized bus system in the midst of a major overhaul, and a single subway line that runs from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Planners wanted to develop a comprehensive system in Baltimore, much like Washington's Metro system. A 1960s-era plan called for six rapid transit lines extending in spokes from a downtown hub.

The existing Metro line, which opened in 1983, was supposed to be the first spoke of the subway. But the will to build more of the costly rapid transit evaporated.

Light rail was seen as a more affordable alternative. But Gov. Larry Hogan's 2015 decision to cancel the Red Line, a proposed $2.9 billion east-west light rail line that would have linked Woodlawn to Bayview — the governor called it a "wasteful boondoggle" — ended hopes for creating a more linked system.

But it's not the end of the road for light rail in Baltimore. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank's Sagamore Development, the developer of Port Covington, wants a light rail spur extended into that massive project in South Baltimore. And the MTA's $135 million overhaul of the region's bus routes, dubbed BaltimoreLink and starting in June, is intended to better connect where people live and where they work.

Paul Comfort is administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration.

The goal, he says, is to create "symbiotic ridership," in which passengers can easily take multiple modes of connected transit — buses, metro and light rail — to get around the region. The state also plans to gut and refit all 53 light rail cars in the next 18 months.

"The first step is to make sure the system is working well," he said. "It's been broken."

When Schaefer introduced the light rail project in 1987, Goon said, the governor pitched three major benefits: a link to jobs downtown, a "reverse commute" to jobs outside the city, and a way to carry tens of thousands of fans to and from his planned ballpark.

After Baltimore lost the Colts to Indianapolis, the General Assembly voted to build a new ballpark to keep the Orioles. They spent $100 million on land acquisition and $125 million to build Oriole Park. (The legislation also gave the state the authority to build a stadium for an NFL team.)

While the downtown location was key to the ballpark's success, it presented significant parking and transportation challenges. That's where light rail, using former railroad lines, came into play.

"It was absolutely critical to making Camden Yards viable from a transportation point of view," said Alan Rifkin, Schaefer's then-counsel and chief legislative officer. Rifkin is now counsel to the Orioles.

To move quickly, Schaefer decided to forgo federal funds to avoid a lengthy review process. It was built using only state and local money.

According to John von Briesen, the light rail's project manager, Schaefer delivered an edict: "I want it done, and I want it done by Opening Day."

The MTA issued a contract on May 1, 1988, and completed the stretch from Timonium to Glen Burnie in 47 months — a breakneck pace for such a large project, von Briesen said.

The engineering team made several tweaks along the way, including re-routing the downtown part of the line away from the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Neighborhoods and businesses worried about the potential effects of light rail. One group in Lake Roland sued to block it, claiming Schaefer was trying to avoid a detailed federal environmental study. In Ruxton-Riderwood, neighbors said a proposed station would bring crime. They succeeded in killing a stop there.

Downtown merchants, already struggling with suburban flight, complained that the construction drove customers away, and the light rail never brought the ones the MTA said it would.

Initially estimated at $290 million, project costs ballooned amid overruns and adjustments to appease neighborhoods and businesses. To cut opening costs to nearly $370 million, the decision was made to only use a single track on 9.4 miles of the line's northern stretch.

The federal government paid $120 million for extensions south to BWI Airport, north to Hunt Valley and into Penn Station in 1997. A discussed extension to Annapolis never materialized.

Eventual double-tracking and other upgrades brought the total price tag to about $680 million, the MTA told The Baltimore Sun in 2006.

Before light rail opened, officials projected it would achieve ridership of 33,100 per day by 2010. Ridership reached an average of 29,000 in 2002, but it slid to an average weekday ridership of less than 23,000 in 2015.

Light rail cost roughly $36 million to operate in 2015. In the 2016 state fiscal year, fares paid by passengers covered only about 18 percent of operating costs. That was less than the 23 percent generated by the Metro, 29 percent by Baltimore-area buses and 44 percent by MARC commuter trains.

Separately, MTA is wrapping up a multiyear, $125 million midlife overhaul of the trains and the system.

Light rail mostly fulfills its potential on game days. That's when the MTA typically adds an extra car to accommodate Orioles and Ravens fans.

Randy Patillo has worked as a light rail operator for 17 years. His busiest days are game days. But he has daily commuters who take the train to jobs in Hunt Valley, too.

"Most of them love it," he said. "Where else can you go and park your car and ride for a buck-seventy? You can't beat it."

Rome Stanley, 22, rides the train from his home in East Baltimore to his two-week-old job as a ramp and warehouse agent at BWI Marshall Airport. If it weren't for light rail, he said, the job would be out of reach.

Without it, he said, "I wouldn't come all the way out here."

Angela Owens, a stay-at-home grandmother who lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Baltimore, uses the light rail to run errands, such as shopping trips to Lexington Market.

Owens said she wishes the service connected to a larger rail network that would take her to Bayview and other destinations.

"It needs to be broader, east-west," she said. "Other than that, it's all right."

Eric Norton is director of policy and programs at the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group.

While the light rail successfully connects riders to employment centers and entertainment, he said, it was never expanded enough to address the region's lack of reliable mass transit.

"It is definitely not adequate as a stand-alone transit project," he said. "Transit works just like roads: You need a network. ... A road does no good if it just goes in one direction."

Mark Wasserman, who was Schaefer's chief of staff, said the "commitment to a regional rail system in metropolitan Baltimore had just stalled out" after the Metro opened.

Baltimore's 27 miles of light rail and 15 miles of subway pale in comparison to the system in nearby Washington, which built out a six-line, 91-station subway system more than 100 miles long.

"I remember thinking then, and quite frankly still today, that the Baltimore system was lagging woefully behind," said Wasserman, now a senior vice president with the University of Maryland Medical System. "In order to make transit-oriented development attractive, you have to have a system."

Among transit advocates, hope for light rail remains. The line has spurred redevelopment around the Woodberry stop, where old mills have been converted into upscale residences, office space and retail and restaurants, including Spike Gjerde's Woodberry Kitchen and Union Craft Brewing.

Elsewhere, there are plans for new apartments near the Cold Spring stop, and hopes that a larger project is coming near the Westport stop, surrounded by land now owned by Sagamore.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz credits light rail as the impetus for the new Avalon Hunt Valley residential units at Hunt Valley Town Center and for McCormick & Co.'s decision to locate its global headquarters there.

"Of course, it offers easy access to Orioles games," Kamenetz added. "What the Baltimore region needs, however, is a truly comprehensive rail system with integrated lines like you find in other world-class cities like New York, Washington and London."

Sagamore has proposed a $165.4 million light rail spur into the waterfront development.

Such an expansion would not only provide transit, MTA Deputy Administrator Suhair Al Khatib said, it would also ease parking needs for the project and increase the reach and ridership of the light rail.

"We are excited," he said. "If the development materializes as has been drawn on the paper right now, and it happens in a five- to 10-year time frame, light rail will have a place. But we have to look at the progress."

A spur connecting the light rail to Port Covington could have a major positive impact if it comes with proper investment — including more train cars to keep the wait between trains short, Norton said.

"It has to be fast, frequent, reliable and get you where you need to go," he said. "If they can keep it doing those things, then it could definitely be a plus."

The light rail remains one of Camden Yards' most unsung assets, Wasserman said. He said its performance there is proof light rail — and regional transit in general — eventually could reach its potential.

"You have to put one foot in front of the other," he said. "Maybe that's the William Donald Schaefer legacy. He at least laid the groundwork."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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