Beltway expansion a short-term fix Extra lanes will help, but officials foresee bigger problems ahead

September 23, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

The 2 1/2 -year nightmare is over for now.

With this week's completion of the $58 million expansion of the Baltimore Beltway -- a project that has snarled traffic and frustrated commuters -- two new lanes await the 175,000 drivers who stream between Towson and Pikesville each day.

But in spite of the extra lanes, experts say, traffic jams are here to stay, with the costly Beltway expansions already leading to more sprawl. Even the expansion from six to eight lanes isn't preventing backups.

Commuters still can expect accordion-like traffic in hot spots from Parkville to Arbutus. Widening the loops in those congested areas will cost another $505 million, says Parker F. Williams, administrator of the State Highway Administration.

"This eliminates one of the bottlenecks on the Beltway, but more needs to be done," Williams said. He said other major bottlenecks exist, and fixing them will be expensive.

Suburban sprawl and changing lifestyles -- such as two-car families commuting in different directions -- have overwhelmed the 44-year-old interstate, he said. The situation can only deteriorate with traffic volume predicted to increase an average of 3 percent each year.

Traffic each day between Towson and Pikesville is expected to climb to 184,000 cars and trucks by 2005, SHA officials say. The 118,000 vehicles that flood the Beltway near Perry Hall each day could increase to 125,000 in seven years.

Worse yet is the southwest corner of the Beltway -- between Interstates 70 and 95 through Catonsville -- which is notorious for its stop-and-go rush hours, as an average of 165,000 vehicles squeeze into six lanes daily. That volume is predicted to swell to nearly 200,000 vehicles by 2005.

Grim forecast

"It's horrible," said Marvin Meyer, who has been commuting from Baltimore to his store, Cy's of Catonsville, on Frederick Road since the Beltway opened. "Most of the time, it's crawling. It depends on the time of day. Sometimes it takes twice as long."

The commuting forecast is grim because the expansions, although desperately needed, create new traffic woes.

For instance, even as the new lanes were being finished between Towson and Pikesville, developers received the blessing of Baltimore County planners for a major expansion of Green Spring Station, an already congested office and commercial hub at Falls Road and Interstate 83. And outside the Beltway, housing construction along clogged Reisterstown Road continues at a hurried pace.

Changing demographics

Adding to these problems is the fact that more and more families commute in two or more cars -- and they go in different directions at all times of the day.

"People have made choices where they will live based on values -- quality-of-life issues," said Harvey S. Bloom, director of transportation planning at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a nonprofit planning group of officials from Baltimore, its five surrounding counties and Annapolis. "With two people working, and a half-hour commute, I'm not sure what's going to change.

"Our choices are to look at alternative means of travel like transit or carpooling," he said. Then, a closer look is needed at land use policies and options like telecommuting and alternative work hours, he said.

The 51.7-mile Beltway was begun in 1954 and completed in 1977. The Towson-to-Pikesville widening is the most significant improvement in recent years.

System has fallen behind

All in all, the Baltimore area's transportation system has not kept pace with suburban job and housing growth, Bloom said.

Indeed, local roadways are so jammed with far-flung commuters that taxpayers could spend $16 billion on transportation over the next 20 years, and the region would be more congested than it is today, according to a report released this year by the council.

The report proposed remedies that include a light rail line from Lexington Market to the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn and from Penn Station to the Inner Harbor, carpool lanes for Interstate 95, 16 suburb-to-suburb bus lines, a Westminster bypass in Carroll County and extensive Beltway widening.

But Bloom says public sentiment, as evidenced by a series of hearings on the report this year, supports merely maintaining existing roads and infrastructure. A final report is expected to be made to the council's transportation committee late this fall.

"Even though we have a major problem and the Beltway is congested at various times of the day, it's still the major spine of our transportation system," he said.

Bridge, sound barrier added

During the Towson-Pikesville expansion, concrete sound barriers went up and workers also made room for a fifth lane that someday might be used for carpools.

Two new landmarks were added: A four-story mound of discarded dirt at the Greenspring Avenue exit that SHA officials hope will serve as a sound barrier, and the arching Falls Road bridge in Brooklandville. The federal government paid for 80 percent of the project, with state taxpayers footing the balance.

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