A 3.2-mile extension of Baltimore's fledgling light-rail line scheduled to open Sunday is expected to significantly boost the system's so-far modest ridership.
Since the initial 14-mile segment from Timonium to Camden Yards began full service May 17, the Central Light Rail Line has averaged only about 5,000 passengers a day. That is far below the 33,000 daily riders expected when the $446.3 million, 29.5-mile electric trolley system is completed in 1995.
Beginning Sunday, trains will continue south from Camden Yards to three new stations: Westport, Cherry Hill, and Patapsco Avenue. They serve poor and blue-collar neighborhoods that officials believe are more likely to produce light-rail customers than the more affluent communities that border the northern portion of the line.
"In the first month or two we'd expect about 1,500 to 2,000 more passengers a day," said Ronald J. Hartman, head of the Mass Transit Administration (MTA). "I think these stops are going to be pretty good for us."
Mr. Hartman insists that he is not disappointed with ridership so far. It has been gradually increasing despite the fact that the summer vacation season is traditionally a slow period for all forms of commuting.
But MTA officials are unabashedly enthusiastic about opening the route southward. The communities along the southern route have been among the strongest supporters of light rail.
"People here think it will be a good thing for the neighborhood, an enhancement," said Virginia Newcomb, president of the Westport Improvement Association. "I feel like it's one of the better things that has happened to us."
But some of the initial enthusiasm has been tempered with worries about crime and vandalism around the new stops.
MTA police officers have been patrolling the unfinished stations for weeks because of frequent problems with theft and damage to construction equipment.
As recently as Monday, workers were replacing glass on a map of the system at the Westport Station, smashed the night before.
Concern over passenger safety also has been an issue, particularly for the stop at Cherry Hill. The stop features a 65-foot-long pedestrian tunnel underneath the adjacent freight railroad tracks, and some neighborhood residents fear the tunnel could harbor muggers.
To reduce the danger, the MTA has decided to station an MTA police officer at Cherry Hill whenever light rail is in service. It will be the only stop with an officer on duty.
"We're planning a fairly heavy dose of police protection at that end of the line in general," said Mr. Hartman. "We've already had more vandalism there there anywhere else."
The route for the extension was essentially created from scratch, pieced together by the MTA with rights of way from five sources, including the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and four railroads, three ofwhich are defunct.
The engineering highlight is a 4,200-foot-long bridge over the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, giving northbound riders a breathtaking view of Camden Yards and the downtown across the water.
As trains travel south from Camden Station, the line runs a bit like a roller coaster, under the Hamburg Street Bridge but over the nearby Ostend Street Bridge, threading underneath the Interstate 95/Interstate 395 interchange.
From there it continues into heavily industrialized Westport, along the Carr-Lowery Glass Co. plant, down to Cherry Hill, and ending just across the city line at Patapsco Avenue, about one-quarter mile east of Annapolis Road. There are three grade crossings along the route: Clare Street, Waterview Avenue, and the Carr-Lowery Glass parking lot. Traffic will be stopped whenever trains are approaching.
The Patapsco Avenue stop adds 216 much-needed parking spaces to the system. Baseball fans take note: Parking is free at the Baltimore County station and trains take only seven minutes to reach the stadium.