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Light rail back on tracks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's Central Light Rail Line is getting its second chance to win the hearts of commuters.

The light rail will assume its full role in the region's transportation network tomorrow as the 14-year-old transit system operates for the first time as a two-track line for virtually all its route from Hunt Valley to Anne Arundel County.

The Maryland Transit Administration is reopening the rail system's northern stretch, between Timonium and Hunt Valley, after a hiatus of 14 months. It had been closed to complete the final phase of a $154 million project to add a second track along 9.4 miles where there used to be one.

The renovation will increase the system's capacity and eliminate the delays caused by single-track bottlenecks. The project's completion means a rider will be able to get on a train at Hunt Valley Mall and arrive at the airport or Glen Burnie in a little over an hour without facing the prospect of pulling over so a northbound train can pass.

Still up in the air is whether double-tracking is the charm that will make Baltimore finally embrace light rail - a system that critics contend was built "on the cheap" - with the same fervor that such cities as Denver and Portland, Ore., have. At station after station along its route, abundant empty parking spaces in free lots tell a story of an underused transit resource.

"Light rail is not a failure here. It just has not lived up to its expectations," said Walter Sondheim Jr., senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee and the patriarch of the city's redevelopment efforts.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden is a recent convert to light rail technology after a visit to Portland. But she's no fan of Baltimore's system. The Northwest Baltimore Democrat said the MTA built it with little regard for the communities it passes through.

"It was built to serve suburban communities trying to get to the [Camden Yards] stadium," she said. "If they think double-tracking's going to help, I wish them luck."

But aboard a near-empty light rail train heading south from Timonium last week, lawyer Paul Hazlehurst said the double-tracking project is already paying big dividends in terms of reliability. He said he used to have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for a train. But no more.

"It's far better than it used to be," he said. "Now [trains] come about every 10 minutes and it's turned out to be a fairly useful way to commute."

Hazlehurst, a federal public defender who lives in northern Baltimore County, said he's looking forward to saving five to 10 minutes each way when he can resume using the Warren Road station this week.

"I hope people use it. It's great for the environment. It's great for lessening traffic," he said, though a delay yesterday tempered his enthusiasm.

The return of passenger service to the system's northern reaches marks the completion of a multiyear program to reverse a much-regretted decision during the late 1980s to run a substantial part of a two-way system on one track.

That decision, made to hold down costs, was one of many widely acknowledged flaws in the system - including a route that bypassed the most populous corridors, stations without shops or other development, and a stop-and-go crawl though the Howard Street corridor.

Together the problems led to disenchantment with light rail.

"It's soured Baltimore's appetite for transit because it's slow and it doesn't serve many people," said Nate Payer, spokesman for the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore. "I think it was not the best investment we could have made."

Hopes were high for the system when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer threw his enthusiastic support behind the 27-mile, Glen Burnie-to-Hunt Valley project in 1987 - a time when many still called it a trolley.

A photograph in The Sun from December that year shows Schaefer at the State House posed in a streetcar conductor's hat gazing on a circular model train that - in a prophetic touch - had only one track.

An article with the photo described expectations for the system. It would be built at a cost of $290 million and carry an estimated 34,000 riders a day. Fares would pay 60 percent to 70 percent of its operating costs.

At the time, there were also starry-eyed prognostications that the system would some day be extended to Annapolis and New Carrollton. Some predicted the trains would bring an influx of shoppers to the Howard Street retail district.

In the ensuing two decades, rosy expectations have wilted.

Cost overruns drove the price tag for the original system to more than $470 million, with double-tracking and other upgrades bringing the total to about $680 million.

Weekday ridership has never approached projections, peaking at 29,003 in 2002. Last year, with the closings at their peak, ridership was off more than 40 percent at 16,610.

Before the double-tracking project got under way, fares were paying about 22 percent of operating costs. That figure dropped during construction.

Spurs to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Penn Station were added in 1997, but talk of further extensions died out. Downtown merchants complained that construction of the light rail killed businesses. Many who survived say its completion failed to deliver the shoppers the MTA promised.

The first segment of the light rail opened in 1992 - just in time for the debut of the Orioles' new baseball stadium at Camden Yards. It had been built according to Schaefer's trademark "do it now" approach - using state and local funds so that the project would not have to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining federal money.

One of the trade-offs the project's planners made to hold down costs - and to appease rural legislators who were cool toward big urban transit projects - was to build much of the system along a single track.

The decision was not particularly controversial at the time. But within five years, it became apparent that the planners had designed a system that was difficult to maintain and impossible to keep on schedule.

"They fundamentally crippled the system," O. James Lighthizer, an early light rail advocate who was transportation secretary under Schaefer, told The Sun in 1997. "To have a useful, state-of-the-art system, you need the double track, and now the chicken is coming home to roost."

Schaefer, now the state comptroller, did not return phone calls seeking his comment.

In 1999, Gov. Parris N. Glendening put money in his capital budget to begin converting all but three of the 12.4 single-tracked miles in the system to double-track operations.

Those three miles, Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said, were the spurs to BWI and Penn Station as well as a narrow right-of-way near the end of the line in Hunt Valley that has not been a serious impediment to traffic.

MTA began construction of the double-tracked lines and supporting infrastructure in March 2002. Initially, the work took place alongside the existing track - resulting in service disruptions, a loss of riders and the prospect that completion would be late.

After the Ehrlich administration came in, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan decided to jump-start the project by closing sections to allow for faster construction.

The first phase closed the stations south of Camden Yards, cutting off BWI and Glen Burnie for most of 2004. The second phase, beginning in January 2005, shut the section from North Avenue to Timonium until October, leaving five northern stations closed.

The decision inconvenienced many riders but allowed the project to be finished ahead of schedule.

The double-tracking enables the MTA to run trains more frequently in the core section from Timonium to Linthicum - every 10 minutes at peak times compared with every 17 minutes with a single track. Riders in the sections where double-tracking is complete say the improvements are significant.

"I know people who stopped using the light rail, and since the double-tracking they've come back," said Bettina Laing, who commutes from Lexington Market to her job in Cherry Hill.

The MTA's expectations of a rebound after the double-tracking are modest. It projects a return to 2002-2003 ridership levels in the 12 months starting in July - still a million riders off its 2001-2002 pace.

Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. said the MTA "feels comfortable" about eventually returning to its former ridership levels. He declined to predict big gains, saying the Ehrlich administration wants to avoid the exaggerated forecasts typical of transit projects.

"We would hope that the numbers will go up much higher," Ports said. "We're not thinking it's going to happen this year. It's going to take some time."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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