To light rail naysayers who insist that nobody uses the trains except a few Orioles fans, we point to the most recent ridership survey. It demonstrates that the Central Light Rail Line is doing what mass transit should do: it's taking cars off the road.
The survey, conducted by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, shows 5,500 fewer cars are on the highways every weekday because people are using the trains to get to work.
An impressive 70 percent of those surveyed said they use light rail to commute to or from their jobs; 46 percent said they could drive but like the train better. Daily ridership (not counting ridership to Orioles games) stands at about 21,000; that means the MTA already is more than two-thirds of the way toward its goal of 33,000 riders by 2010.
That goal is on the modest side, considering that it includes the expected increases from future connections to Hunt Valley, Penn Station and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Light rail ridership will likely go through the roof once these connections open. That's especially true for the BWI station. Anyone who has experienced the nightmare of trying to park at the airport in recent months knows what a blessing it will be to ride light rail directly to the terminal.
Light rail has taken a political beating these last few months, especially in Anne Arundel County. Concerns about safety and crime have been blown out of proportion to the point where they have begun to obscure the value and necessity of mass transit systems. As restrictions related to the federal Clean Air Act kick in, even people who prefer to drive will be asked to think twice about riding alone to work and back.
Have all the kinks been worked out of light rail? Not yet. Improving security remains a concern, though stepped-up police efforts already are cutting down on crime.
The shortage of parking at some stations also discourages ridership (in Anne Arundel County, the three stations with limited or no parking are the least used on the entire line, while the Cromwell/Glen Burnie station, which has loads of parking, is the third busiest). The "honor" system of buying tickets needs to be re-examined, although increased spot checks by the MTA for scofflaws should help.
Nonetheless, the evidence so far shows that light rail works if you put it where people want it and make it easy to use.