Md. aims to curb belief that crime, light rail are linked


State officials announced programs yesterday aimed at ending what they called a "perception" that the light rail system is dangerous to passengers and delivers criminals from the city to the suburbs.

While at the same time charging the media with overplaying coverage of transit crime, the governor praised the Mass Transit Administration for spending $100,000 to pay overtime to police officers from the city and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties to provide extra protection at the system's 24 stations for two months.

"If I get on mass transit, I want to believe that I am safe," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer at yesterday's news conference at the Camden Yards station. "The majority of the time, it is safe."

Mr. Schaefer, surrounded by several top officials, including Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, charged that "every once in a while the newspapers play up" a crime story on the light rail.

"The perception that comes with that is that it isn't safe," he said. "We have to change that perception."

John A. Agro Jr., the MTA administrator, said at the news conference that light rail is "undergoing growing pains as it co-exists in a society where crime and violence is commonplace."

Officials said the 2-year-old light rail system is gaining ridership, now at 20,000 passengers a day.

Under the new program, the MTA will pay police agencies in Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties for overtime accumulated by officers who patrol the stations from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Mr. Agro said that will free up MTA officers so one can ride in each train. The officers will be able to check more people to make sure they are buying tickets under the honor system.

Officials said that should help deter crime because many criminals may be riding free.

The state also announced a companion $100,000 program called The Together Project -- a summer jobs initiative employing 75 teen-agers who are working in communities around light rail stops, at MTA headquarters and on the trains helping passengers in need of assistance.

Chosen from schools in neighborhoods along the light rail, the students began Monday working 40 hours a week at $5 an hour.

The youth program also is designed to deter crime.

MTA officials noted that most of the violence and disorderly behavior is committed by youths between 12 and 18.

The money for the programs comes from funds left over from unfilled vacancies in the administration, said Dianna Rosborough, an MTA spokeswoman.

Two communities at opposite ends of the 22-mile light rail line, Linthicum and Lutherville, have complained that the transit system offers cheap transportation to criminals who venture into their shopping areas and neighborhoods.

On April 23, a 24-year-old Ellicott City woman was stabbed while waiting for a train at the North Linthicum stop.

In May, Anne Arundel County police started the Light Rail Enforcement Initiative, with officers assigned to stations.

A county police spokesman said officers in that program will be ** replaced by the overtime officers funded by the MTA.

"It certainly is a deterrent to know there is an officer at each stop," said Officer Randy Bell. "If you go to Caldor's to steal something, you have to transport that merchandise back on the light rail. The fact you have to carry it past an on-duty police officer would certainly be a deterrent to me."

The Linthicum-Shipley Improvement Association, which voted for light rail service last year, now wants the stop closed.

The association's president, Gerald P. Starr, said yesterday that Mr. Schaefer is out of touch if he thinks crime generated from the light rail is only a perception.

"I think the governor ought to get out of his seat in Annapolis and start reading the newspaper," Mr. Starr said. "That's not misrepresentation. I think we've had 120-some arrests. You've got to be a Loony Toon not to see that. . . . Where does he think the crime is coming from?"

Deborah Nesbitt, who is in charge of security for the Lutherville Community Association, which had a meeting Tuesday night about light rail security concerns, said she was impressed with the state's plans.

"I just hope it works and they follow through with it," she said.

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