Tough times for light rail

By Alexander Pyles

Light rail, which includes a stop at Camden Yards, is falling short of a weekday ridership goal set 16 years ago. And the Orioles, experiencing their worst-attended season in Oriole Park history, aren’t helping.

It seems that neither Oriole Park at Camden Yards nor Baltimore’s central light rail line are selling as many tickets as planned when the two opened days apart from each other in 1992.

Fewer than 22,000 fans a game, on average, watch the Orioles in Baltimore, filling less than 44 percent of the ballpark each night. The Orioles rank 24th out of 30 Major League Baseball teams in home attendance in 2010.

A sign for the light rail near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Laura E. Lee/Capital News Service)

“What we found was that, here as of late, we have not seen real spikes in general for Orioles games during the summer,” said Terry Owens, spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration.  “When light rail first opened, Camden Yards was more of a novelty, it had more of an effect then.

“More recently it’s not had the kind of impact you might think.”

Planners projected that by 2010 light rail would carry 33,000 riders each weekday. While light rail did reach that number in past years, MTA numbers indicate the goal wasn’t met last year and is unlikely to be met this year.

“We’ve hit it before,” Terry Owens said. “We’ve not sustained it.”

Owens said small crowds at Orioles games has not been the only factor in lower ridership in recent years. Instead, “any number of factors” could affect how many people take light rail, including such draws as conventions or concerts in the city, or – on the minus side — vacations by would-be commuters. But the Orioles appear to have had some impact.

“They are a factor in the equation,” Owens said.

Even before beginning limited service to Camden Yards on April 4, 1992, MTA officials encouraged fans to use mass transit to get to the ballpark, going so far as to offer families discounted fares if they showed tickets for the game.

Originally, MTA officials set a goal of attaining a weekday ridership average of 33,000 by 1995. By 1994, with daily ridership at only 18,600 passengers, MTA administrator John A. Agro Jr. told The Baltimore Sun that light rail would accomplish its goal of attaining 33,000 riders daily by 2010.

The Sun reported that between 30,000 and 33,000 riders used light rail per day in 2003, but light rail averaged only 28,152 weekday riders in 2009, according to MTA’s Annual Report. If you include weekend ridership, which is generally lower than weekdays because fewer people are going to work, that average falls to 23,868 riders per day.

Light rail has been averaging between 24,000 and 26,000 riders each day that the Orioles are playing in Baltimore since the start of baseball season in 2010.

Owens said the MTA is taking steps toward returning to and sustaining numbers closer to the 33,000 average weekday ridership. In 2006 a second track was added, and a five-to-six year overhaul of railcars is beginning next year.

The novelty of a new ballpark in 1992 may have brought more riders to light rail to attend Orioles games, and greater attendance at games might help light rail to raise its ridership numbers. But this year, the team is mired in its 13th straight losing season. Some fans say they see fewer light rail passengers near game time.

“The Orioles have been terrible,” said Bill Druckenmiller, who boarded light rail at the Mount Washington stop on a recent Friday night on his way to the game. “It’s not really worth going if they’re not playing well.”

Druckenmiller, who is a Boston Red Sox fan, said he used to go to about 10 Orioles game a year, using light rail to get to the stadium. But this season Druckenmiller has attended only five games so far.

Melissa Thomas and her family go to about a half dozen Orioles games a year, she says, but were attending their first game of the season in late July. She said they take the light rail from its northernmost station in Hunt Valley for home games, and she’s noticed less company in recent years.

“It depends how they’re doing,” Thomas said. “If they’re doing well, it’s more crowded.”