Put the 'mass' in mass transit Until commuters are moved to use rail or buses, congestion will worsen in spite of billions spent on roads

January 06, 1998

IF YOU PAID thousands of dollars to fix your roof, but found water kept getting into your home, you would investigate another solution. So why aren't we taking a serious look at our approach to transportation in the Baltimore area?

During the past decade, $6 billion was spent on highways. Interstate 95 and parts of the Baltimore Beltway were widened. The Jones Falls Expressway was renovated. New connector highways were opened to Owings Mills, White Marsh, Annapolis and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. And the result?

Congestion is worse, the rush-hour is longer and "road rage" is a buzzword for the late 1990s.

Many of our transportation woes stem from the outward spiral of growth during the past 40 years. As residents move farther from Baltimore and the inner suburbs, drivers spend more time commuting. Some fill that "dead time" doing business on car phones. Others try to complete their daily hygiene or eat breakfast at 70 mph.

They don't have anyone to talk to, because more than 80 percent of commuters travel alone. They have a good bit of time to listen to their own thoughts, too, since the average motorist spends 85 minutes a day on the road. The number of miles traveled in the area has increased 57 percent during the past 15 years.

For most suburban residents, the automobile is the sole mode of transportation. Only 16 percent of Baltimore's commuters use mass transit. That compares with 20 percent in Washington, 40 percent in Portland and more than 50 percent in New York.

While the Metro subway line, opened in 1983, and Central Light Rail, begun in 1992, have increased options for thousands in the region, highway construction still dominates.

From 1988 to 1997, 70 percent of Maryland's Transportation dollars -- $6 billion -- went to Highways. Transit received 22 percent, or $1.9 billion. (The remaining 8 percent went to aviation and other agencies.)

Mass transit foots much of the bill for its cost. The Mass Transit Administration must gain half its revenue from the fare box, one of the stiffest standards in the nation. The rule was instituted to ensure fiscal accountability, but it's a false economy. The 50-percent requirement stifles innovation and experimentation to gain ridership.

Huge gaps mar the MTA's service map. That was inevitable: The statute created the agency only covered Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Two jurisdictions not served by Metro or light rail, Harford and Carroll, have the biggest increases in residents traveling out of the county to work.

Even motorists who never use mass transit are helped by it: One study estimated there would be 76,434 more vehicles on Baltimore area roads, an 11 percent increase, if every transit rider became a motorist. An additional 405 miles of lanes would be needed to accommodate the load. -- the equivalent of a road from Baltimore to Boston.

Mass transit also aids air quality, a major concern in an area where geography, industry and traffic whip up some of the least breathable air in the nation. Air, oblivious to political boundaries, is as regional as it gets.

It is high time to shift more attention to mass transit, with construction of the interstate highway network largely complete.

In the short run, state legislators should reduce the share of revenues the MTA must collect from the fare box.

Gaps in the system have created a negative impression among potential riders that the system is unreliable. How can suburbanites -- or urban residents making reverse commutes -- have confidence in transit when it is impossible to get from, say, Catonsville to Ellicott City on MTA?

The MTA must develop more park-and-ride facilities in the emerging outlying areas, as it has done on Richie Highway in Arnold and near White Marsh Mall. Commuters need confidence they'll have a safe place to leave their cars if they're going to try an express bus to work.

The MTA needs to ask itself how it focus on the same consumer base that private businesses are scrambling to serve. The agency's market research needs to be stronger, judging from a park-and-ride facility it built in Rosedale a few years ago that went largely unused from the start.

It's hard to chide people for commuting alone when mass transit doesn't try harder, or isn't given the resources, to win them over. Marketing alone isn't going to change habits.

MTA doesn't have to look farther for a good example than its own 27-mile Central Light Rail system, It has made believers of hundreds of drivers with its safety, convenience, affordability and comfort. Daily ridership is 20,000, many of them white-collar workers and professionals who never used transit before.

Business knows light rail's importance. It was one reason MBNA chose to move its 3,000-employee Mid-Atlantic regional headquarters from Delaware to Hunt Valley.

The light rail system became even more useful recently with its expansion to Baltimore County's Hunt Valley, Penn Station in Baltimore and BWI Airport.

THe line should be extended to Columbia in Howard County and White Marsh near the Harford-Baltimore county line. Those residential and employment centers offer great potential to grow ridership. An east-west line would attract more middle-class commuters who might never consider taking the bus, as well as city residents trying to reach jobs in northeast and southwest suburbs.

A light-rail line that intersected with Metro would make the grid more comparable to the webbed rail systems of cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Sense and efficiency has been lacking in transportation strategy, where we keep spending more and more with no improvement in sight. Welfare reform demands that we have a better way of getting people from the core to jobs farther out. We need more ways to get workers from suburb to suburb, now the route for 44 percent of nationwide commuters, one study says.

Throwing asphalt at the problem is not working.

Next: Race's ugly role

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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