Better roads, slower rides predicted for state in 2020 More Beltway lanes, mass transit planned

September 30, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer Staff writers Liz Atwood and Patrick Gilbert contributed to this article.

By the year 2020, Baltimore area travelers can expect a bigger Beltway, some wider suburban highways, more mass transit options -- and a slower commute to work.

Despite $3.7 billion in highway and transit improvements recommended by transportation planners in a draft report, the growth in traffic congestion is likely to outpace highway construction. As a result, the planners say average highway speeds are expected to fall from 50.1 miles per hour in present rush hours to 42.8 mph in 2020.

The report recommends $1.3 billion in transit projects, including two new light rail lines extending into Baltimore County, but predicts that ridership will rise modestly in the next 27 years and might even drop.

The predictions recognize two realities, the authors say: that government can no longer afford to build a highway to address every new traffic jam, and that suburban commuters are loath to switch to buses or trains.

"Transit's wonderful, but the reality is that people want the convenience of getting in their cars and taking off early to pick up the kids from day care," said Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning in Howard County. "It's very difficult to change people's ingrained patterns."

The report was written by the transportation steering committee of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a private, nonprofit organization that coordinates transportation planning for Baltimore and the five surrounding counties.

It was drafted in response to a new federal requirement to get local governments to plan long-term for regional improvements.

After pondering the wish lists of all six jurisdictions, the committee has chosen projects that address emerging population and employment trends. Much of the spending, for instance, would benefit people who both live and work in the suburbs, a group that is growing faster than suburban-to-city commuters.

"There aren't big, untapped corridors where you just get the right-of-way and build a new highway," said Mr. Balser, the committee's chairman. "What we're attempting to do is squeeze the most we can out of the turnip."

Among the big-ticket items are projects to widen the Beltway on the north and west, adding one lane to the inner and outer loops at a total cost of more than $450 million.

Seven major rail projects are also touted. One of the most ambitious would create a new line from the Baltimore Metro station under construction at Johns Hopkins Hospital to the White Marsh area.

The report recommends construction of a spur from the Central Light Rail Line to Towson and from Glen Burnie to Marley Station Mall in Anne Arundel County. It also calls for the Mass Transit Administration to add $40 million in new track to the existing route, eliminating delays on stretches where north- and southbound trains share a track.

Committee members cautioned that the endorsement of a project in the report doesn't guarantee that it will get built, nor does failure to make the cut mean a project is doomed.

The report should be viewed as a blueprint, said Charles Krautler, the council's executive director. Some projects may be added or others dropped, as the plan is fine-tuned every three years, he said, though warning that projects not included will not get federal funds.

"If a particular project is not in this plan, it will not qualify for any federal dollars," Mr. Krautler said. "On the other hand, there is a very, very strong likelihood the things listed in this plan will be built."

Making assumptions

The report makes numerous assumptions that may not prove valid, its authors admit. The $3.7 billion budget, for instance, is based on conjecture that the General Assembly will continue to raise gasoline taxes 4 cents to 5 cents a gallon every three to five years and will not significantly change the way the state pays for its part of transportation.

On the other hand, planners do not anticipate any new state or federal policies to steer commuters to mass transit services. But they do assume that the cost of operating transit services and maintaining roads will take a bigger proportion out of the transportation budget.

Committee member Z. Andrew Farkas, an associate professor for transportation studies at Morgan State University, believes transit is short-changed in the report.

"Local jurisdictions are still very roadway-oriented," he said. "It was stated repeatedly that we needed to do things differently than we have in the past, but we really didn't."

Frederick P. Rappe Jr., manager of systems planning for the state transportation department, called the report a "best guess" at what the region will look like in 2020 and "what we can afford."

Filling in gaps

"We have to concentrate on fixing what we have, improving on that, and filling in gaps," Mr. Rappe said.

The Beltway widening emerged early in yearlong discussions as a priority for the region. It will likely be the last time the circumferential road can be widened, said J. Craig Forrest, Baltimore County transportation coordinator.

"We would be maxed out in terms of what we could do with that artery," Mr. Forrest said.

The committee did not propose extending light rail from Glen Burnie to Annapolis, a decision that disappointed Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins.

"I would hope that Annapolis would be given priority," said Mr. Hopkins. "Light rail would really relieve our traffic problems."

But Anne Arundel officials said that they generally were pleased at the proposed projects, particularly a decision to widen Ritchie Highway.

The report also recommends more spending on the U.S. 29 corridor in Howard County so that it meets freeway standards. Carroll County residents would get from some long-sought bypasses.

The public will get a chance to comment on the report at a hearing Oct. 12 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the council's headquarters, 601 N. Howard St. in Baltimore. The transportation committee is scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 26.

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