2020 vision for Baltimore Leaders, residents should recognize ills of the late 20th century rather than continue the folly of suburban sprawl.

January 10, 1998

RUNNING AWAY cannot continue to be the preferred response to the Baltimore region's problems. It is a short-sighted strategy.

People fail to grasp that if crime, congestion and schools are bad enough to convince them to move, thousands more probably have the same idea. They should not be so shocked when their dream in suburbia ends up including rampant development, clogged roads and school classes in trailers.

Running away offers, at best, short-term comfort. Over time, it spells disaster.

If this pattern continues, state forecasts suggest Baltimore will lose more than one-tenth of its population by 2020 and Baltimore County will grow that much. Meanwhile, Howard County will gain nearly 40 percent. Maryland will lose a half-million acres of farmland and forest in that span. Absent a cross-jurisdictional transportation plan, gridlock will worsen. Poverty and crime will spread, as many suburbanites move farther still.

These problems don't respect jurisdictional boundaries. Baltimore County has a strict rural conservation plan, but it can't keep thousands of Carroll commuters from clogging roads in the valleys. It doesn't do much good to crack down on crime along U.S. 40, Liberty Road and Ritchie Highway if the effort stops at the city line.

The ideas explored in these editorial columns the past week are not new. Experts on metropolitan areas and some elected leaders have been saying for years that suburbanization has created issues -- air and water quality, commuter traffic, land use, economic development -- that transcend boundaries and jurisdictional solutions. Yet the public continues to prefer parochialism.

One reason is that while political boundaries may be arbitrary, they are not meaningless. The city and counties do have unique identities and needs. And in Maryland's strong county-based system of government, these jurisdictions have power. BTC Cooperation sometimes means relinquishing a bit of that power. This is difficult, even when it's the right thing to do.

Another problem is that regional cooperation too often has been presented as altruism, with the hard-pressed city receiving a helping hand from its thriving neighbors.

This is unrealistic, especially since the city, with its continuing housing and political controversies, has had trouble convincing suburbanites it deserves help. The perception is also inaccurate. For one thing, regionalism already exists in painless and mutually beneficial ways. Countians pay Baltimore for their water. Library users can return books anywhere in the region.

Additionally, the notion that the counties are humming along is not true. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties have some desperately poor neighborhoods. Carroll, with a meager commercial base and rampant, service-oriented residential growth, is caught in a tax nightmare.

Transportation and land use are two areas where we see a glimmer of hope. "Smart Growth," Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to bolster the core communities, is a step in the right direction. Also, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the state-created agency charged with developing a transportation strategy rightly links land use and transportation decisions in its master plan.

Some of the solutions proffered in this series -- a regional fund to support culture, tax-base sharing, diversifying housing -- have proven consistently unpopular because suburbanites cannot see what's in it for them. That can change with education and courageous elected leadership.

What happens if we share some of the growth in commercial tax revenue among all the jurisdictions? Factories, offices, attractions and manufacturing would locate where it makes sense for them to be -- not where they get the best tax deal. That would mean less congestion, fewer malls in the middle of cornfields.

Yes, urban areas would benefit. But so would surrounding areas. We'd all get money from, say, a new downtown arena. And if we demand accountability so that Baltimore uses its share to improve schools and housing and services, it might keep families from leaving and win others back.

What does that mean for those of us who call this region home? Everything.

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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