Managing congestion

April 29, 2003

FOR COMMUTERS battling workweek rush-hour traffic between Baltimore and White Marsh, Harford County and beyond, plans to widen a portion of Interstate 95 - announced last week by the Maryland Transportation Authority - would simply seem to be a long overdue answer to prayers.

After all, between White Marsh and the Baltimore Beltway in Baltimore County, I-95 traffic tie-ups are a twice-daily nightmare. Put simply, the interstate fails for two hours or more each weekday morning and evening.

At White Marsh, the highway, designed for 140,000 car trips a day, carries an average of 165,000. By 2020, the transportation authority estimates the road there could be swamped with 230,000 trips a day.

But when it comes to adding highway lane miles to reduce congestion, "more" often hasn't made all that much difference - and, in some cases, has made for even worse traffic jams. That's because of a phenomenon dubbed "induced travel," in which increased capacity induces more driving - until the same roads are once again rolling parking lots.

One of the prime examples of this is across the state in Montgomery County, where Interstate 270 was widened in the early 1990s. In anticipation, developers broke ground farther north along I-270 in northern Montgomery and into Frederick County, accelerating growth and producing traffic congestion that filled the widened interstate within just a few years. Studies of road projects across the country have frequently documented a similar interplay fueling more sprawl without solving congestion.

This is a particularly relevant issue for the 50 miles of the I-95 corridor from the beltway to Delaware. Harford County is so awash in growth pressures there's a move to step up controls - to shut down new construction where county schools are full. Even much farther north, in Cecil County, commissioners are holding a hearing this week on a proposal to halt new housing for six months in more than half the county.

As a result, any widening of I-95 north of Baltimore - as welcome as it may be to commuters - puts an even greater responsibility on state and local officials to manage the growth already overwhelming these areas and to not allow more lanes to promote even more of an ex-urban growth explosion.

Along the same lines, the transportation authority must aggressively follow through on initial talk of not simply adding I-95 lanes but managing the mounting congestion by perhaps tying the highway widening to more express bus services or high-occupancy lanes.

I-95 is a local, regional and national resource; it serves commuters, the regional economy and long-distance travelers and truckers. Traffic data indicate it should be widened to meet their needs. But that must be accompanied by concrete state and local efforts to serve the interests of the entire region by breaking the link between more lanes and more sprawl.

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