A road plan with tie-ups 20-year outline shows continued congestion in the Baltimore region

June 14, 1998|By Marina Sarris

Imagine spending some $16 billion on transportation over the next 20 years and still finding the Baltimore region more congested than it is today.

That is exactly what the Baltimore regional planning organization is recommending, to the chagrin of some environmentalists and highway contractors. For vastly different reasons, they have attacked a draft, 20-year plan by the Transportation Steering Committee.

The environmentalists say the plan has too many new roads that encourage sprawl, a bane of suburban living. A pro-highway group argues that roads and economic development are being shortchanged. Critics say the plan lacks vision, though they clearly have different visions of the future.

The plan, called Outlook 2020, is the handiwork of representatives of the governments of Baltimore, the five surrounding counties and Annapolis. It calls for about $4 billion in new projects, mostly roads, over the next two decades, and $12 billion to maintain and operate the existing transportation system.

The new projects include a light rail line from Lexington Market to the Social Security Administration, light rail from Penn Station to the Inner Harbor, carpool lanes for Interstate 95, 16 suburb-to-suburb bus lines, a Westminster bypass and a widening of the Baltimore Beltway.

Yet, despite these and dozens of other projects, the region will be about twice as congested in the year 2020 than it is today. Transit ridership, meanwhile, is expected to stay at the same level as it is now.

This frustrates Jack Kinstlinger of Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways, which is composed of construction, engineering and business groups. At a recent symposium, he argued that the plan shamefully shortchanges motorists. "This is a plan for disaster," he said.

The way he sees it, mass transit - with its high operating costs - is bankrupting the system and draining money away from needed roads. The state should find another way to pay for transit so it doesn't compete with roads for funds, he says.

Environmentalists agree that the plan is a recipe for disaster, but because it devotes too much money to sprawl-inducing highways at the expense of environmentally friendly forms of transportation. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of the money would go toward pedestrian and bicycle projects, laments the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund.

The proposed widening of Route 32 in Howard County, the Westminster bypass and the carpool lanes for I-95 all encourage sprawl, they said.

"The future the plan promises to deliver is not a pretty picture," says Michael Replogle of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.

The argument, as often happens in transportation planning, comes down to whether one believes government should respond to long-standing trends or try to shape the future.

"Do we plan for reality or do we plan for idealism?" Kinstlinger asks. "Whether we like it or not, history is telling us that people are moving out to the suburbs for the schools, lower taxes, the lifestyle. That means less options for transit and more for highways."

Although it's true that both jobs and people have moved to th suburbs in the past 20 years, as he points out, it is also true that those same suburbanites often complain about the sprawl and traffic congestion that accompanied them.

For some, the solution is managed growth, an attempt to funnel development to cities, to established suburban neighborhoods and to selected corridors. They assail the plan for not providing a unified vision for the region or creative solutions.

"It's just a very unimaginative, business-as-usual attempt to solve the problems of the future with the same old solutions of the past that don't work," said Gerald Neily, co-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee. "They're not coming up with any solutions that will turn the tide on the trends of greatly increasing traffic congestion, declining transit ridership and sprawl."

Neily, for one, wanted to see more money for pedestrian and bicycle paths and for Maryland Rail Commuter trains, along with ideas for "getting more bang for our buck" from mass transit.

Despite such complaints, some say the planning process is still an improvement over the past. The work under way in Baltimore is an outgrowth of a 1991 federal law that required bodies of local government representatives in metropolitan regions to approve transportation projects, once the sole province of state agencies. The hope was that regional councils, like the one in Baltimore, would do a better job than state bureaucracies had done alone.

That has happened in many places. "We have seen a record number of beltways and highways on the edge of suburbs get canceled as a result of [this] planning process," said James Corless, spokesman for the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington.

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