Suburban drivers doing more idling during rush hour Population explosion, love affair with car are fueling gridlock

December 28, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

If you think you're growing old sitting in local traffic, you're right.

Fueled by a population boom in the Baltimore suburbs -- and by America's continuing love affair with the automobile -- car-dependent commuters are filling area highways and suburban roads at a steadily increasing pace.

From the rush-hour clog on Interstate 695 and the Harbor Tunnel to congestion on Greenspring Valley Road and other local arteries, frustrated drivers spend an average of 31 hours per year in gridlock, according to a recent national study -- up from 13 hours in 1982.

The 12-year probe of urban roadway congestion by Texas A&M's Transportation Institute ranks Baltimore 22nd nationally in congestion -- behind the top five, notoriously gridlocked Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Miami and Chicago.

And it's only expected to get worse.

Despite the current $55 million Beltway expansion, state transportation officials warn drivers to prepare for longer commutes as major local routes remain packed with suburban traffic from town centers such as White Marsh, Owings Mills and Hunt Valley.

The plight of Michael A. Goff is typical.

The managing director of T. Rowe Price Technologies moved to the Baltimore County suburb of Phoenix three years ago from Kansas City, drawn by the acreage and scenery of rural life.

"We like the horse country, the white fences and rolling hills of Maryland. And we like the feel of it out there," Goff said.

But getting to work is another story. The 23-mile commute down Jarrettsville Pike, along Dulaney Valley Road and then through Timonium and onto the Beltway is a daily crapshoot that can take from 30 minutes to just over an hour, Goff said.

"It seems like we're on the ragged edge, where things are precariously balanced," Goff said. "For the best bet, I listen to traffic reports when I first get up at 6 a.m. and try to make a decision on the time to leave. I don't schedule meetings until later."

State Secretary of Transportation David L. Winstead and a number of urban experts, including Myron Orfield of the American Land Institute, cite the creeping suburban sprawl of the past two decades as the main reason for today's gridlock.

"The problem stems from the love for the automobile in America -- and the kind of development that has occurred over the decades," said Winstead.

A study by the University of California at Berkeley showed that most Baltimore-area commuters travel solo and by automobile, shunning car pools or mass transportation.

Suburb to suburb

It's not just the commute into downtown Baltimore that's likely to get worse. The new gridlock is expected to include suburb-to-suburb commuters as jobs continue to migrate outside the city.

Elvin Wyly, a geography professor at Rutgers University's Center for Urban Policy Research who has studied Baltimore's commuting trends, said a 31 percent employment gain in the local suburbs has brought traffic jams to the new hometowns of White Marsh, Perry Hall and Owings Mills.

"The way we have built our cities is such that people continue to move outward to lower-density areas, and it entails all sorts of transportation and infrastructure problems," Wyly said. "The costs will come home, but they are hidden costs."

Goff, the T. Rowe Price executive, has experienced some of those problems. He laments the lack of a major east-west route connecting the booming Owings Mills area -- where T. Rowe Price has suburban offices -- and other northern suburbs.

As a result, he is often among the more than 12,300 commuters who travel two-lane Tufton Avenue just west of Oregon Ridge Park each day.

"The town center concept to control growth is flawed because they never conceived of commerce between the town centers," Goff said. "They thought people would live there, work there, shop there and die there; well, that's not the facts of life. People do not do all things there."

Faced with such complaints, officials are taking steps to change some of the commuting patterns they say lead to rush-hour congestion.

"We want people to think how you can help yourself: What route do you take? Can you use transit for some of the trips?" said Tom Hicks, the State Highway Administration's director of traffic and safety. "For instance, the Mass Transit Administration has an aggressive marketing campaign, and that will be an answer in the future, to get people out of their cars."

The Beltway-widening project from Towson to Pikesville has also been designed to include one more lane if necessary, which could be used for a car-pool or high-occupancy vehicle lane.

It's part of an aggressive attack on congestion launched by SHA bureaucrats.

In August, the agency dispatched a helicopter and a photographer to fly around the Beltway at peak rush hours and record traffic patterns.

The data will be combined with information from future flyovers to direct state funding for road improvement projects, Winstead said.

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