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Baltimore's light rail 'more than ready' to roll for regular service MTA says beauty of light-rail system is its flexibility


The light-rail line that opens today takes passengers within clanging distance of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, the resting spot for vintage streetcars that predate Maryland's newest mode of mass transit.

But all passengers can do is ride by, because the line doesn't have a stop within easy walking distance of the streetcar museum. Or the Baltimore Zoo, which is also practically on the line. Or the Village of Cross Keys, with its shops and inn. Or the neighborhoods of Ruxton and Riderwood.

That's one of the frustrations riders are likely to discover about the new Timonium-to-Camden Yards rail service: Even though the light-rail cars stop at 15 different places along a 13-mile stretch, they are not as handy as buses that stop on every corner.

Still, it is an eye-opening experience to see the many places they do make more accessible, from downtown Baltimore past the former mills in the Jones Falls Valley to the suburban area of Lutherville and Timonium.

With today's opening, riders will be able to see firsthand the potential the $446.3 million Central Light Rail system has to link the region in new and unexpected ways.

They will see the visibility it gives to areas such as Howard Street, Woodberry and Mount Washington. They will be able to envision the many ways it might be used -- not just to take people to work or a ballgame, but as a weekend excursion line that can carry passengers to the State Fair in Timonium or Artscape in the Mount Royal cultural center or concerts at the Meyerhoff.

Whatever shortcomings the system has on opening day, Mass Transit Administration (MTA) planners say, can be corrected in coming years as the state responds to users' needs.

"The beauty of this kind of system is its flexibility," said MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman. "The whole line was built to be a first step. It's not the same as the Metro system, where it can cost $30 million to build an underground station. Here you can add stops, eliminate stops, add track, add parking. I could see it being completely different in 30 years. You can make it the centerpiece of the whole redevelopment of Howard Street. The possibilities are endless."

Designed by Cho Wilks Benn Architects Inc. of Baltimore, the stations are marked by distinctive yellow, blue and white markers. They have single- or double-waiting platforms, free-standing shelters, fare machines and information panels.

On Howard Street, the stops use shelters from the days when part of Howard Street was a buses-only transit mall. North of Howard Street, the stations have new, metal and glass shelters with curved roofs and glass wind-screens.

To help individualize stations, the MTA set aside up to $10,000 in "enhancement funds" for each stop, and communities responded with plans for everything from flower gardens and special paving to historic plaques.

As attractive as the stations are, though, the real test is how well they function for the communities they serve -- and the riders they carry.

That is where riders may see room for improvement.

At the Falls Road stop, the boarding platform and shelter are separated from a nearby office building by a long wooden fence that is difficult to get around.

At the Cold Spring Lane stop, the platform was put in a gully next to the Jones Falls Expressway, accessible only by a winding ramp that leads from the street above.

At North Avenue, the station is in another no man's land and obscured by construction trailers.

At 11 of the 15 stops, there is no designated space for people to park their cars for free and board the trains. Where free parking is available, there may not be enough spaces.

In Woodberry, which has no MTA lot, some patrons have already had their cars ticketed after parking near the station to ride to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The Falls Road stop has 75 spaces and room for more, but the extra space has been landscaped instead.

At Lutherville, the closest parking spaces are in a shopping center parking lot, but light rail patrons are not allowed to park there; the MTA has a smaller and less visible lot farther from the boarding area.

The Timonium lot has the most spaces, 850, but that number has already proved insufficient on several occasions, and overflow parking has been accommodated at the Timonium fairgrounds.

Mr. Hartman and other MTA officials say the station locations and designs reflect the wishes of the neighboring communities. In areas where the community did not want to encourage development or parking by outsiders, stops have little parking and provide little or no opportunity for commercial development.

In other areas, especially in downtown Baltimore, stops have been located where they could provide a stimulus for development. Capitalizing on the state's investment, one developer, Samuel Himmelrich, has already begun recycling old mills near the Woodberry and Mount Washington stops as multitenant business parks.

The MTA officials have explanations for the various quirks along the line.

The Falls Road stop doesn't have more than 75 parking spaces, they say, because the community did not want more. The fence was erected there as a visual barrier because the owner of a house nearby didn't want to see the shelter and Baltimore County officials ordered that the fence be put up.

In the most extreme cases, stops were deferred entirely because of neighborhood opposition, even though they could have helped the system serve riders better.

Because of opposition from residents of Ruxton, Riderwood and the Village of Cross Keys, the MTA decided not to build stops for those communities.

At the same time, others wanted stops so much they paid for them when the state was going to eliminate them to save money. A development group headed by Leroy Merritt and David Bavar paid $254,000 to cover the cost of the Timonium Business Park stop, which carries employees practically to the doorstep of several buildings in the area. The University of Baltimore agreed to pay $350,000 for a stop at Mount Royal Avenue and Dolphin Street, near its campus. University President Mebane Turner says he believes the line will be a boon to the campus because it makes it more accessible to students.

Mr. Hartman said he is optimistic that once the system begins full operation and people have a chance to see how it can serve their communities, they will drop some of their initial resistance and request changes that result in improved service for everyone up and down the line.

"With a project such as this, the biggest marketing tool is the ribbon cutting, because it means people finally have a chance to get on it and experience it," he said.

"Our strategy was to build a minimal, base-line system that serves the initial demand we saw, and then have the ability to add on later. And that's what we did."

The state is prepared to make changes as needs arise and funding permits, he added.

Planners are looking at ways to extend the network, including possible lines from downtown Baltimore to the Catonsville campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, to Annapolis, and to Frederick.

"When the subway opened, the greatest complaint we heard was: 'Why doesn't it go to my neighborhood?' " Mr. Hartman said. "With light rail, it will be the same kind of thing. And as ridership grows, we could enhance the system, if that's the public's sentiment. We haven't foreclosed anything. This is just the beginning."

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