New needs outpace roads, transit lines


October 07, 1990|By Doug Birch

Anne S. George, who drives every morning from her home in Parkville to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, is one of a hardy band of commuting pioneers in this region. And like most pioneers, she has had to learn to rough it.

An increasing number of Baltimore-area commuters are no longer living in the suburbs and working in the city, transportation planners say. They are scurrying from their suburban homes to their suburban jobs.

Ms. George, a 44-year-old marine biology teacher, would prefer to ride public transportation to Silver Spring, but that would take too many connections and too much time. She would move, but loves neighborly, affordable Baltimore. So she copes with frequent car repairs, steep gasoline bills, 12-mile backups on Interstate 95 -- and a little guilt.

"Teaching kids conservation is a part of my act," she said, "and I feel so guilty every morning, driving past all these people who, just like me, have just one person in their car."

Later, she added: "I've told my son to become a traffic engineer. In the future, we may not have a lot of things, but we'll always have traffic."

The problem is that this region, like most metropolitan areas, is hard-wired with a road and transit network designed to speed people from residential areas to the city center and back again -- with interstate highways designed for long-distance travelers. Moving from suburb to suburb requires a more circuitous route.

The result is that the average commuter is spending more time on the road and covering more ground. Interstates designed for long-distance drives are clogged with local traffic. Meandering country roads and bridges, built for hay wagons and combines, are being pounded by Jeep Cherokees and Lexus sedans. And fewer commuters can use mass transit.

Public and private transportation officials, planners and some civilian commuters, in comments about recent commuting trends in the region, say Baltimore-area residents do not routinely face the epic delays and monumental tie-ups that plague more densely populated regions, such as those around Los Angeles, New York or even Washington.

But Baltimore's traditional and suburb-to-suburb commuters still face their share of frustrations -- such as daily rush-hour backups on the southwest and northeast sides of the Beltway, chronic overcrowding on commuter trains between Washington and Baltimore, and a bus system that is late about 20 percent of the time.

Traffic experts say at least some of these problems are linked to new living and working patterns.

Rebuilding road and transit networks to accommodate those patterns will be slow and difficult. "There's no quick fix," said Charles R. Goodman, director of transportation planning for the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.

One solution is for local governments to use their zoning power to channel residential and commercial growth around existing transportation, Mr. Goodman said. Then the roads and mass transit links in those corridors must be improved to handle the increased volume.

The new commuting pattern has prompted the state Department of Transportation to recommend such mammoth projects as expansion of the northeast and southwest sections of the Baltimore Beltway from six to eight lanes, a task that would cost an estimated $650 million -- if the money is ever found to do it.

That pattern also has affected transportation on a smaller scale.

The Paper Mill Road bridge over Loch Raven Reservoir, the Carroll Road bridge over the Carroll Branch creek and the Sparks Road bridge over the Gunpowder Falls were all built to handle rural traffic. All now carry commuters from eastern Baltimore County and western Harford County to the Hunt Valley #i shopping, industrial and corporate district. All were recently closed for repairs.

One driver who called The Sun's telephone information line -- Sundial -- characterized the Hunt Valley area as "the perfect bottleneck."

People don't realize when they move to the country that the roads will be crowded with other people just like themselves, said Donald W. Brewer, commuter assistance officer for Baltimore County.

Businesses also move to the suburbs without giving enough weight to transportation problems, he said. He recalled meeting with employees of a firm that is moving its clerical and midlevel staff from downtown Baltimore to Owings Mills. Many of those workers now live in Harford County.

"They wanted me to give them some magical route they could take that would get them from Abingdon to Owings Mills without taking the Beltway and without taking two hours each way," Mr. Brewer said. He knows of no such route.

The executive who decided to shift operations, Mr. Brewer said, sails to work in the Inner Harbor aboard his boat -- and will continue to do so, because the firm's executive offices are not moving.

Planners are jittery that the new commuting pattern will make it even harder to expand mass transit, considered far more efficient than private automobiles.

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