Roads proposal fails to confront root of problems

ON THE BAY

Shortsightedness: Outlook 2020 acknowledges that sprawl and increased use of cars will worsen the region's traffic but offers no alternatives.

January 22, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HERE'S WHAT ALL who will live and drive in metropolitan Baltimore in the next 20 years should understand about Outlook 2020, the "21st century" regional transportation plan just approved by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Its first "guiding principle" is sound -- "linking transportation to managing growth."

But it doesn't.

It proposes to spend $2.8 billion on new and expanded roads, including hundreds of millions on projects that would guarantee more sprawling development, costing the region environmentally, fiscally and socially.

The second principle speaks laudably to "improving life in our communities giving priority to transportation projects that reduce air pollution."

But it doesn't.

The plan concedes that, 20 years from now, traffic congestion will be much worse. There is every reason to assume that what planners call "VMT" -- vehicle miles traveled -- a huge factor in air pollution, will continue rising faster than population.

Which brings us to a third, excellent principle -- "increasing transportation choices," i.e., alternatives to driving.

Again, the plan just doesn't have its heart in this. Of a total of $16 billion, it proposes expenditures of about $15 million -- 0.1 percent -- on projects to encourage bicycling and walking.

Evidence from Portland, Ore., and other areas indicates that investment to increase bicycle and pedestrian traffic pays off bigger in reducing congestion than dollars for conventional mass transit.

No plan that includes $16 billion for hundreds of projects over 20 years can be all bad. But this one's enough of a cop-out that Gov. Parris N. Glendening should make his Department of Transportation redo it immediately.

(He made a small start this week, announcing elimination of $1.5 million in planning money for five road projects.)

But this is still no fit "21st century" plan for a metropolitan region that routinely has unhealthful air, and is choking on traffic to the point where even highway boosters say we can no longer build our way out of it.

It is no kind of plan for a state whose governor has made a national name for promoting Smart Growth -- refocusing population growth, from large lots sprawling across the countryside back into and around established towns and cities.

One can't lay the entire burden of Smart Growth on the backs of transportation planners, but transportation is the "800-pound gorilla" of land use.

How livable the Baltimore region is in 20 years will depend hugely on how we translate transportation dollars into "mobility" -- whether into big new roads to reduce commute times from ever farther in the countryside; or into revitalizing downtowns and inner suburbs, so more people can walk to work and school.

It is unfortunate that such an encompassing guideline to the region's future as Outlook 2020 ignores a broader vision that recognizes the links among transportation, land use and the quality of lives.

It is worse than ignorance. The plan acknowledges it has not dealt with its impact on growth and development, and says:

"This is the second transportation plan that broaches the subject, but cannot address it adequately, and won't until local officials desire it to be done."

Talk about a Catch-22. Those local officials are the executives of the metro counties and the mayor of Baltimore -- who, with the Transportation Department, devised Outlook 2020 (acting as the Baltimore Metropolitan Commission).

Residents and civic organizations, who are led to think they have input in the transportation planning process, deal with the Transportation Steering Committee of the Baltimore Metropolitan Planning Organization.

But this group is window dressing, existing mainly because it must for the state to get federal transportation money. It effectively insulates the real decision-makers from the public.

The real dealing is done between the Transportation Department and elected officials, county by county.

It is this pattern of deciding projects county by county, rather than regionally, that is a key flaw in the process.

A prime example of the parochialism that results is Outlook 2020's proposal to spend about $200 million on widening Route 32 through Howard County's agricultural district and into southern Carroll County (a turkey that evaded the budget ax that cut a few projects this week).

Carroll is wild for more highway access, desperate to boost the sickly 13 percent of its tax base that comes from commercial-industrial development (residential development is mostly a net tax drain, requiring more services than it pays for).

It's a valid concern pursuing the wrong solution, according to the Baltimore Regional Partnership, a coalition of civic and environmental groups that has analyzed Outlook 2020.

The partnership argues compellingly that the result of the Route 32 upgrade would be more bedroom communities in Carroll, their commuters using the improved drive time to work in more prosperous Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

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