Rush-hour traffic is fast slowing to a crawl

Report confirms increased congestion - and a few improved spots - in Baltimore area

March 26, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER AND RONA KOBELL | MICHAEL DRESSER AND RONA KOBELL,SUN REPORTERS

Five years ago, Barbara Grey thought her half-hour commute from Catonsville to Annapolis wasn't so bad. Traffic jams were only an occasional headache as she drove to her state job.

But now, Grey says, she runs into backups all the time, and the drive takes 40 minutes to an hour. She has had to learn alternative back-road routes. She's beginning to think it's time to change jobs.

Grey is hardly alone among Baltimore-area commuters in concluding that roads in the region have become more jammed the past few years. Now an eye-in-the-sky study provides photographic evidence that the problems they perceive are real and that rush-hour traffic congestion has gotten significantly worse on many major highways over the past six years.

The report commissioned by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council found:

A fairly steady increase in congestion and a corresponding drop in the percentage of roadways without problems. While 75 percent of the region's highway lane miles were rated as congestion-free during the evening rush hour in 1999, 59 percent had that rating last year. In the mornings, the unjammed percentage has fallen from 74 percent to 65 percent.

Many of the areas of growing congestion lie well outside the Baltimore Beltway in suburbs where many people moved to escape such urban headaches. For instance, the photographs show steadily deteriorating evening conditions at U.S. 29 and Route 108 in Howard County - a spot ranked "not congested" in 1999, "intermittently congested" in 2002 and "severely congested" last year.

Sometimes state highway engineers have unclogged one stretch of a highway only to see the congestion move farther up the road. Commuters traveling up U.S. 29 from the Washington area used to run into backups between Montgomery County and Route 32. Those have eased, but the evening congestion has worsened between Route 32 and Route 175.

"Overall, the problem is getting worse," said Victor Henry, senior transportation planner for the council, a planning group that represents local governments in the city and surrounding counties.

Henry's conclusion is based on aerial observations by Skycomp Inc. of Columbia. Since 1999, the council has hired the company at three-year intervals to use airplanes with cameras attached to the wings to take pictures of the traffic on 575 miles of freeways and major arterial highways.

The pictures let transportation planners pinpoint problems in lanes, ramps and intersections at different times of the morning and evening rush hours.

State Highway Administrator Neal J. Pedersen, whose agency is a partner in the study, said the data from the photo studies have been useful in helping the state set transportation priorities. He said most of the findings are consistent with the agency's observations and radio traffic reports, but he acknowledged being surprised by the report of severe problems at U.S. 29 and Route 108.

"That was one I had not heard about," he said. "We will take a new look at that one."

The results appear to confirm many of the findings of the Texas Transportation Institute's most recent Urban Mobility Study, which found that Baltimore went from the 31st-most-congested urban area in 1982 to the 14th-most-congested in 2003.

While last year's pictures show improvement in some places, other corridors have gone from free-flowing highways to long, narrow parking lots.

According to the study, among the corridors that have tipped from the "not congested" column to "congested" in recent years are Interstate 70 in the morning around Marriottsville Road in western Howard County, U.S. 50 morning and evening in the vicinity of the Severn River Bridge, and southbound Interstate 97 between Generals Highway and Route 32.

Grey, of Catonsville, is well aware of the transformation on I-97. In five years of commuting to the Annapolis headquarters of the Department of Natural Resources, she has seen congestion go from an occasional accident-related annoyance to a routine occurrence.

"It's more like an everyday thing, and when I started it wasn't," said Grey, the department's southern region planning chief. If she leaves between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., the trip can take her twice as long as it used to. She said she has been forced to learn alternative routes, such as New Cut Road and Generals Highway.

Another commuter who has noticed increased congestion is Janet Selway, who for the past four years has been making the drive from White Hall in northern Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she teaches nursing.

Selway's trip takes her south on Interstate 83, where traffic approaching the Baltimore Beltway has gone from "intermittently congested" in 1999 to "congested" in 2005 - with a stretch between Padonia and Timonium roads getting a failing grade at the height of morning rush hour.

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