Baltimore's light rail system is running near empty.
One year after opening, the Central Light Rail Line is attracting fewer than one-quarter of the customers it's supposed to carry eventually. The promise of an economic stimulus to the depressed Howard Street business district has gone unfulfilled.
As a result, the high-technology electric trolley line built mostly at the expense of state taxpayers continues to be heavily subsidized by tax dollars, even by the generous standards of mass transit.
Add up the estimated yearly bond payments on its $364.4 million construction cost for its first 22.5 miles and a $10.6 million annual operating budget, and the light rail is so far costing Maryland taxpayers $8,804 per round-trip customer.
By comparison, the city, state and federal governments spend a combined $5,549 to educate each pupil in Baltimore's school system.
"There's deep concern about the ridership problem," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the project. "Construction costs exceeded estimates, and the ridership is far beneath original estimates. It's the worst of both worlds."
According to Mass Transit Administration (MTA) estimates, fewer than 8,200 passenger trips are recorded each day on light rail, which runs 19.5 miles from Timonium in Baltimore County through downtown Baltimore and south to Linthicum in Anne Arundel County.
That amounts to just 25 percent of the 33,100 daily trips the line is supposed to attract by the year 2010.
Admittedly, a three-mile addition to the line's southern terminus in Glen Burnie won't be finished until July, and the future seven miles and $98.1 million worth of extensions to Hunt Valley, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Pennsylvania Station are still three years away.
Nevertheless, those responsible for creating the system clearly are disappointed with its initial performance. They also are reluctant to say so publicly lest they incur the wrath of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the man who is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing light rail to Baltimore.
Hop aboard a light rail car on a typical midday, particularly at the northern end of the line, or anywhere on weekends or evenings, and you won't find much company. Only the peak of rush hour, and the brief crush before and after Orioles games, ever fill the seats.
'The jury's still out'
Nowhere is the low ridership more evident than on Howard Street. Merchants there expected the sleek, European-style mass transit system to bring prosperity to a retail district that has witnessed a spiraling decline.
Disappointed business owners say the MTA led them to believe there would be 30,000 people riding light rail trains immediately, not 17 years in the future.
"With a low-cholesterol and high-fiber diet, maybe I'll live to see the prophecy of the MTA," said Alvin Levi, president of Howard Street Jewelers.
"We're still thrilled to have light rail on Howard Street, but it's not had the impact we were hoping for."
Milt Rosenbaum, president of Market Center Association, which
represents 450 downtown merchants, said more stores were shut down during the light rail construction along Howard Street than have benefited in the year the system has been open.
"How can you justify 5,000 people riding on a system that costs hundreds of millions of dollars?" said Mr. Rosenbaum, who owns a women's hosiery store. "It doesn't make sense. I know of no business that's been opened by the coming of light rail."
State officials contend it's too early to judge. They concede the ,, dearth of economic development, but blame it on the recession.
"The jury's still out, and it will be out for some time," Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said. "It isn't a question of if
light rail will succeed, but when. I have no doubt about that."
In response to the ridership problem, MTA officials are formulating plans to upgrade the system. Their strategy includes adding parking, improving the speed down Howard Street and promoting the system with a broad advertising campaign.
The MTA's urge to aggressively sell Baltimore commuters on light rail demonstrates how attitudes have changed since an ebullient Governor Schaefer unveiled the proposed 29.5-mile system in late 1987 and within a matter of weeks persuaded the General Assembly to tap Maryland's transportation trust fund to finance it.
The cost, originally estimated at $290 million, rose to $446.3 million two years later and last summer climbed $16.2 million more, to $462.5 million. Mr. Lighthizer told legislators that price is now "written in blood."
The most recent overrun led some lawmakers to suggest that the project's final phase -- extensions to Hunt Valley, BWI and Penn Station -- be scrapped. But with the federal government committed to financing 80 percent of the additions, the idea was abandoned quickly.
"At this point, it would not benefit the state to truncate the system," Delegate Maloney said. "Our options are limited. We have to make the best of a bad situation."
Since opening for baseball service April 6, 1992, and starting full operations May 17, light rail's shortcomings have become increasingly apparent. Most of them are the result of efforts to keep the system's costs down.
For instance, the trains follow the northbound path of the old Northern Central Railway freight line along the Jones Falls from downtown. The right-of-way was readily available and politically expedient, but the route is lightly populated, and few potential riders are within walking distance of stations.
Even if customers drive to stations, there are fewer than 2,500 parking spaces on the 22.5-mile baseline system, compared with more than 8,000 spaces along the 14-mile Metro line from Owings Mills to Charles Center. Bowing to concerns from some community groups, the MTA built many light rail stations with no parking at all.
About 40 percent of the light rail line has only one set of tracks, shared by north and southbound trains. That means trains have to be spaced at least 15 minutes apart no matter the urgency. Dual tracks would cost another $40 million, the MTA says.
'Just an increment'
Delays on Howard Street, primarily because of traffic lights, slow trains to a crawl. Local merchants have called the creeping trains "the white snails," Mr. Rosenbaum said.
John A. Agro Jr., who took over as MTA's administrator two months ago, acknowledged that the system's performance could be improved. But he noted that ridership figures are not as bad as they look because they don't include stations in Anne Arundel County that opened three weeks ago.
"We still have just an increment of what's going to be out there. We don't have a whole system built yet," Mr. Agro said.
Nevertheless, Baltimore's light rail system has the poorest ridership of the dozen or so systems in the country. Only systems in Buffalo, N.Y., and Santa Clara County, Calif., have had as weak an initial response.
Santa Clara's first six miles of a 21-mile line through Silicon Valley attracted only 2,000 to 3,000 riders per day when it opened in December 1987. Buffalo's initial response in 1985 was even worse, and it still falls 14,000 riders short of expectations eight years later.
"It's very discouraging," said Dr. John F. Kain, a professor of economics at Harvard University and frequent rail critic. "The evidence is almost overwhelming that these things don't turn out as well as people expect."
Transit industry officials dispute that gloomy assessment. They say the benefits -- low cost and flexibility compared with subways, along with the need to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion -- make light rail a natural.
"Light rail has worked in every place it's been tried with the possible exception of Buffalo," said Rod Diridon, a Santa Clara transit official. "Why wouldn't it work in Baltimore?"
Baltimore's light rail generally gets high marks from the people who do use it. The trains are comfortable, quiet, clean, virtually graffiti-free and almost always on time.
Some improvements have been planned. The city has tentatively agreed to allow light rail cars to pre-empt traffic lights. As early as next year, electronic devices could be installed that would cause the signals to give trains priority.
'Three to five years'
That alone would shave six minutes off the 18-minute trip from North Avenue to Camden Yards, state officials estimated.
Mr. Agro hopes to increase parking along the route by 30 percent and wants to see the agency do a better job of promotion.
He proposes phasing out some bus routes that duplicate the light rail's north-south service, forcing more commuters onto the trains.
As for cost, light rail isn't breaking the MTA's back. Light rail requires only 6 percent of MTA's operating budget, compared with 57 percent ($111.6 million spent on 275,000 daily passenger rides) for buses, 15 percent ($29.6 million for 45,000) for Metro, and 17 percent ($33.2 million on 18,000) for the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system.
"Two-thirds of the ridership is expected to come from Camden Yards south, and that won't be fully opened until July," Mr. Lighthizer said. "You can't accurately determine whether the system is a success or a failure at this point -- maybe in three to five years."