Light rail fails Baltimore residents

Since I moved to Baltimore in July, the light rail has been my lifeline and an opportunity to support public transportation, which I consider my civic duty. I teach at the University of Baltimore (State Center and Mount Royal stops), bought a house in south Baltimore County (Baltimore Highlands stop), consult with medical practitioners downtown (University Center and Centre Street stops) and in Hunt Valley (McCormick Road stop), and avoid train station or airport parking (Penn Station and BWI stops). In spite of the occasional delay or inconvenience of relying on “bus bridges” during shut-downs, the light rail has served me well.

That’s because I’m a middle-class white woman.

On March 23, a Friday night, I arrived at BWI from Seattle at 10:05 and got to the light rail terminus at about 10:20. It was already crowded, both inside the sliding doors and, despite the cold, outside on the platform. A marquee blinked “BWI Airport – 40 min,” showing how long it would be until the next train arrived. I asked around and discovered that the 10:10 train had simply not shown up. A few travelers decided to “Uber it downtown.” The marquee continued to flash at “40 min.”

When the 10:40 p.m. train didn’t arrive, many people on the platform became restless, and I can hardly blame them. I take the light rail as a convenience, not a necessity, and I wasn’t coming off a long shift as baggage handler, mechanic, fast food worker or bathroom cleaner. People began calling home, plugging cell phones into any available outlet, rolling around in the wheelchairs stowed nearby, taking strolls and naps in the terminal and griping, griping, griping — which they had a legitimate right to do. I occupied myself by studying the lighted DC subway map, planning my next journey to our nation’s capital.

As time passed, the crowd grew to nearly 200, and its frustration multiplied when 11:10 — the next scheduled train time — came and went. It only got quiet once while I was out there, when some ICE officers pushed through with a woman in handcuffs. Finally, close to 11:30 p.m., a single light rail car pulled into the station. Its occupants surged onto the platform, rushing late to their overnight shifts for which, I imagined, they would be docked pay. All but a few of us waiting managed to squirm on, overloading the car so that its progress north proceeded at a snail’s pace.

After a collective deep breath, riders began cursing the MTA that had extended their workday by 90 minutes. A homeless man in the wheel well showed off the ticket he’d gotten from BWI police for “using the airport as a residence” (a.k.a. sleeping on the floor). Suddenly, someone yelled, “Can you believe it? She’s doing a fare check!” True. An MTA police officer was pushing her way through the car asking for tickets. Fortunately, we pushed back, so she didn’t get very far.

Why am I writing this? Because I was the only white person on that train that Friday night, and presumably one of few people who didn’t really need the train. Because my “opportunity” to support public transportation has given me a front-row seat to MTA’s disrespect for Baltimore residents — most of them black — who have no choice in the way they get around. The light rail fails them daily, in such an obviously racist manner that one can’t help but notice.

Consider the Patapsco Station, just north of mine. Baltimore Highlands is clean and well-maintained, with easy access for nearby residents. Patapsco features a parking lot and bus stops (and a constant MTA police presence), yes. But to my knowledge, the main way most light rail patrons reach the platform is by hiking down the hill from public housing, crossing multiple CSX tracks and tracing a perilous path across the Patapsco Avenue bridge along the light rail line, day and night. MTA simply didn’t build a safe way for these captive users — again, mostly black — to reach their ride.

On the afternoon I wrote this, I rode downtown on a light rail car packed with largely white Orioles fans on their way to the game. A fare inspection commenced as soon as they alighted at Camden Yards. And when is the only time I’ve ever seen Baltimore’s finest on the light rail? When the symphony’s playing, so the folks from Lutherville and Mount Washington can feel safe.

Something’s seriously wrong with this “customer service.”

Terese Thonus (tthonus@ubalt.edu) is a professor and the director of the writing program at the University of Baltimore.

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