Amtrak and commuter rail passengers and the countless drivers trapped in North Charles Street traffic over the past two years have reason to rejoice over today's opening of a $14 million parking garage at Pennsylvania Station.
Seven months late and $1 million over budget, the tri-level facility features 550 parking spaces -- twice what has been available at the privately operated street-level lot north of the 84-year-old train depot at Charles and Lanvale streets.
Not only is the garage expected to make parking more convenient, but the building's top level creates a plaza at the station's main entrance. That means picking up and dropping off passengers will be easier, too.
The opening also brings relief for commuters who have been denied a lane on Charles Street near the Jones Falls Expressway ramp since the city public works department launched the construction project in May 1993. The curb lane -- used by taxis during construction -- will be restored to motorists today.
"It's going to be a pleasure to see that opened," said Michael A. Jones, a Penn Station ticket clerk. "We won't be getting nearly as many complaints from customers."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is set to drive a vintage Cadillac through a banner to officially open the building at 11 a.m. The ceremony signals the beginning of a small-scale revival for the beaux-arts classical building that remains a significant gateway for Baltimore with 3,000 to 6,000 rail travelers passing through each day.
Community groups are hoping a more convenient and attractive station will help the deteriorating Mount Royal-Penn Station neighborhood.
"Baltimore is finally getting a train station that a city of our stature deserves," said Mary Sue McCarthy, executive director of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture.
City officials blamed the delay and the cost overrun on some unexpected difficulty drilling through rock strata at the 2.6-acre site, as well as the severe winter of 1993-1994 and the relocation of a 66-inch sewer main. The garage required 12,000 yards of concrete -- the equivalent of more than 1,300 truckloads.
"We're glad to get finished," said Warren Miller, vice president of Roy Kirby & Sons, the project's contractor. "It's been a tough road."
By the spring of 1997, the Mass Transit Administration expects to complete a light rail extension into the station. From the Mount Royal light rail stop, the short spur will bring passengers directly to a platform underneath Penn Station.
Part of a $106 million project that also will connect the Central Light Rail Line to Hunt Valley and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Penn Station spur will provide a first-ever connection of light rail, Amtrak and the growing Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) service.
Beginning today, drivers going to Penn Station will enter from St. Paul Street into the new plaza. If they choose to park, they will circle around to a ramp leading down to two levels of parking. To exit, they will return to the plaza and leave by either Charles or St. Paul.
Parking will cost $3 per hour to a maximum of $12 for 24 hours or $190 for a monthly permit. The rates are the same as for the Lanvale Street lot, which is scheduled to close in about a month.
City officials expect to add an exit from the plaza to the JFX and an entrance into the plaza from Charles Street, but not for at least two years. For now, motorists leaving the garage will have to circle around the neighborhood to enter the highway at the Charles Street ramp.
The Jones Falls exit from the plaza -- and a planned renovation of the Charles Street bridges over the JFX and the rail tracks -- won't begin until next year. They will likely be completed, at a cost of $15 million to $20 million, in 1997 or 1998, said public works chief George G. Balog.
New external lighting for the station will be unveiled at a "Penn Station Sensation" party Dec. 2. Proceeds from the event will help pay for a "mini-visitors center" touting some of the city's tourist attractions to rail travelers, Ms. McCarthy said.
A $500,000 renovation of the station's west entrance is expected to be finished by next year. Landscaping and other minor work on the garage remain to be completed.
The project was financed by $5.7 million in revenue from city-owned parking facilities; $4.7 million from the Federal Transit Administration; $2 million from Amtrak, which owns the station; and $2.5 million from the state.