Md. drivers see a rise in time behind wheel

Headaches on crowded roads


August 30, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Sheila Welsh doesn't need government statistics to convince her that the hourlong commute from Westminster to College Park is getting more challenging, despite her best efforts to dodge gridlock.

Welsh, 59, rolls out a good hour before sunrise so she can reach her desk at the University of Maryland by 6:30 a.m. But lately, she said, she has noticed more company on her 48-mile trek.

"It's gotten worse," said Welsh, an administrative assistant in the admissions office. "Other folks have decided to leave early to beat the rush."

Marylanders, who endure some of the nation's longest daily commutes, are spending even more time these days getting to work, according to a survey released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau. And though still not large, the percentage of commuters opting for public transportation over the stress and expense of driving alone is creeping upward.

The mean time that Marylanders took to reach work last year was 30.8 minutes, the bureau reported in its 2005 American Community Survey, an annual statistical snapshot of the nation. That's an increase of more than a minute since 2000.

Commuting times vary across the state, with Calvert County residents claiming the longest, at 39.4 minutes. Next are Charles, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, all in the Washington area.

In the Baltimore area, Carroll residents reported the longest commutes, at 33.1 minutes, followed by Harford (30.6), Howard (30.2), Baltimore City (28.7) and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties (tied at 27.8).

Nationwide, only New Yorkers took more time than Marylanders getting to work in 2005, with a mean commute of 31.2 minutes.

Federal census officials cautioned against comparing the 2005 data with that from the year before, noting changes in how the surveys were conducted. Last year's questionnaire reached a larger segment of the population, for instance, moving beyond sampling the state's most populous counties to quiz residents of any place with at least 65,000 residents.

Survey variations notwithstanding, other data have tended to confirm that commutes in the region are lengthening. Recent surveys by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and by the Texas Transportation Institute, for instance, have reported worsening congestion on the region's roads.

Maryland's highways have grown busier since 2000, according to data furnished by the state Department of Transportation. For instance, the average number of vehicles counted on the northwestern stretch of the Baltimore Beltway every day has swelled from 150,065 in 2000 to 185,262 last year, state figures show.

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan called the commute times "a congestion tax that our citizens are paying."

"They are paying in the form of wasted time, traffic hazards on the roads, wear and tear on their cars, ... wasted gasoline," Flanagan said. "All of this is a burden on our citizens." He said the Ehrlich administration responded to earlier reports of Marylanders' long commutes by pushing for highway and transit upgrades.

But Harvey Bloom, transportation director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, cautioned that highway and traffic projects are costly and take years to complete. The region's congestion is "a very difficult thing to build our way out of," he said. And it might just be the price the region has to pay for economic vitality, he suggested, because worsening rush-hour traffic indicates more people going to work.

Adding to the traffic is that 46 percent of Marylanders work outside the county where they live - well above the national average and second only to Virginia in the percentage of border-hopping commuters.

For some, that growth is translating into "extreme" commutes. One in 20 Baltimore residents logged trips to work of 90 minutes or more each way in 2003, the Census Bureau reported last year.

Jean Balent, 27, is one of those. The environmental engineer estimates that her morning commute from her house in Patterson Park to Crystal City in Arlington, Va., usually takes an hour and 40 minutes, with time out to join a car pool in Federal Hill. Her late-afternoon trek home from her job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency generally stretches to two or 2 1/2 hours, she said.

Car-pooling relieves some of the drudgery of driving, Balent said. She and up to three others who share the ride "chitchat, talk about things and share food," she said. In the morning, since they set out before dawn, one or more will try to squeeze in a little extra snooze in the back seat.

Nearly 74 percent of Marylanders reported that they still drove to and from work alone last year - down slightly from prior years and below the national average of 77 percent.

Nearly one in 12 Marylanders reported that they car-pooled to and from work last year. While slightly below the level of ride-sharing reported in the 2000 survey, the figure has been creeping up marginally in the annual questionnaires the past two years.

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