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Sightseeing on the light rail


LIGHT RAIL in Baltimore might be running on empty, but i has just won another fan. Me.

It moves people efficiently, it helps reduce air pollution and it reduces street congestion and parking problems downtown. And, yes, it is cheaper than driving when you can subtract the cost of parking.

I knew all that before I, my wife Charlotte and our grandson Tyler climbed aboard at the Lutherville stop one mid-morning last month. That first trip demonstrated another light rail asset: It's a lovely sightseeing experience.

With no driving worries, you are free to look. And big windows reveal countryside and skylines that you just can't see from a car. But it is more than that. After you have driven downtown two or three thousand times, you know where you are each foot of the way. As a novice tourist on light rail, you are surprised at every new scene.

The sensation is heightened if, like me, you have a poor sense of direction. Graul's Market on Bellona Avenue was the first landmark I recognized southbound. The rest was exotic woodsy splendor in spring. Not Charles Street. Not the JFX. Not the Beltway.

Mount Washington looks different from the rail. Lake Roland as mud flat is something of a shock.

And I discovered the Jones Falls. The real Jones Falls. There it was, babbling along its way to eventual burial under the Fallsway. The sight was a reminder that the falls was once important to the city -- as a source of water for drinking, for fighting the Great Fire of 1904, for powering the Hampden mills, for transporting sewage. If I was ever close enough to see it as I drove to and from the city, I never noticed.

The city is the city: There are no surprises here, except that it takes just half an hour to get to Camden Yards from Lutherville. And you don't have to start looking for a place to put your car when you get there.

After you leave downtown Baltimore, you get a sense of topography that just doesn't occur on an elevated highway. You see the flatlands first. They surrender to the marsh, then to running water. The order is reversed on the other end.

The Baltimore Beltway is no doubt vital to our transportation system, but it can distort our sense of distance and of the relationship of one section of the city to an adjoining one. Light rail rectifies all that. It demonstrates the compactness of the metropolitan area -- and its interrelatedness.

The current southern light rail terminus is downtown Linthicum, just across the highway from a modest shopping center that boasts, among other little shops, a bakery, a travel agency, a barber shop, a drugstore, a book store and a restaurant named "Chuck's." Nobody here seems to be in a hurry. And it can't be more than 15 minutes from Howard and Lexington.

The joy of discovery on the light rail can probably be experienced only once. But it's well worth the price of a ticket.

Gus A. Crenson writes from Towson.

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