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Contrary to impressions, the light rail is right on schedule


THE headline in the Sunday Sun April 25 about ridership on the light rail line ("Light rail's passenger numbers off the track") is misleading and premature by at least three years. It gives the impression that the line has failed to reach its ridership projections. On the contrary, the level of ridership is about what it should be at this stage . . . .

With few exceptions, a rail transit line takes a number of years to realize its potential ridership, because the public changes its travel patterns gradually. It takes time for people to realize the benefits which a new facility can provide. It is thus unrealistic to expect that the Baltimore light rail line would achieve nearly the level of ridership projected for the year 2010 in its first year. As the article points out, the entire project on which the ridership projection is based won't be finished for another three years. Despite this, the initial results are encouraging. . .

The light rail line has been in operation for less than one year. According to the projection for the year 2010, the northern end of the line would average 11,000 passengers per day and the southern end 22,000. Within its first three months, the northern end averaged 5,000 passengers per day, or about 46 percent of that projected, despite the fact that it does not yet go to Hunt Valley and several stations have not been built. Since the southern line was opened to Patapsco Avenue, total ridership has increased by 3,200 passengers per day.

The experiences of San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose and Portland, Ore., are remarkably similar and provide a preview of what I expect to happen here. When each city opened its first light rail line, it was criticized as a failure because of its initially low ridership. Within three years, widespread public support developed as the value of light rail became apparent and ridership increased. . . .

In Sacramento, the first line was routed through the area with the lowest potential ridership in order that it could be built for an average cost of $7 million per mile. Since its opening in 1987, the increase in ridership has resulted in the double tracking of a substantial portion of the single-track sections. . . .

When San Jose opened the first section of its line in 1987, it didn't even serve the downtown area, and ridership was about 1,500 per day. When the southern half was opened in 1990, it served many residential areas, and ridership jumped to 22,000 per day. The downtown business community is convinced that light rail has played a significant role in stabilizing the retail sector. The route of the next line has already been determined and planning for it has begun.

The line in Portland opened in 1986. Although it serves only the eastern part of the city, both the city government and the business community are convinced that it has enabled the downtown area to remain viable. More than $600 million in investments for commercial and office building projects are attributed to the positive effect the line has had. Construction is to begin this spring on an extension to the west side.

The level of transit riding in a city increases with its population density. According to the 1990 census, the population density of Baltimore is twice that of San Jose and 2 1/2 times that of Portland, San Diego or Sacramento. So I expect light rail in Baltimore to be more successful than light rail on the West Coast.

The capital costs of light rail cannot be compared meaningfully with the operating budget costs of educating school children, nor is it realistic to divide them into the present ridership. Tens of millions of passengers will be carried during the life of the light rail, and the cost per trip will be modest in comparison to the cost of operating the service. One of the advantages of light rail is that it pays a higher percentage of its operating costs out of farebox revenues than any other form of public transit.

I will be as happy as any of the merchants along Howard Street to see it revive as a retail area, because I believe that the city center is best suited to be the premiere retail location in the metropolitan area. Two things are necessary to accomplish this: Shoppers must have an attractive means of reaching Howard Street, and they must have a reason for wanting to come. The light rail line will help fulfill the first requirement; only people willing to invest in the future of Howard Street can fulfill the second. . . .

The light rail line will not work miracles, however. The use of public transit has been declining for the last 45 years, and it is unreasonable to think that a single rail line could substantially reverse this trend in a short time. What the line will do is to point the way toward the potential of a metropolitan area system to make a substantial improvement in transit use.

When service is extended to the Dorsey Road terminal in July, it would not surprise me if the ridership reached a daily level of 12,000 or more, since the principal parking lot is located there. This level would represent one-third of that projected for 2010, not including riders to and from Orioles games.

Any judgment about the success or failure of light rail should be withheld until at least 1996. At that time, the line will have been completed and the problems mentioned in your Sunday article (slow speeds on Howard Street, inadequate parking and lack of a sales campaign) will have been addressed by the MTA. I frankly expect the Baltimore line to serve as an inspiration to cities up and down the East Coast which are also planning light rail projects.

Charles J. Lietwiler, who writes from Rockville, has been a student and user of urban mass transportation for 40 years.

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