Maximizing transit

January 31, 2008

By the General Assembly's traditional measures, Senate Bill 204 is about as boring as it gets. The bill doesn't include new spending or taxes. No jobs are involved. There are no new programs or even a reorganization of government. But what the bill does is as vital to the Baltimore region's future as anything lawmakers are likely to consider this session.

Simply put, it says that the creation and support of transit-oriented development should be a priority for the Maryland Transit Administration. That's not a new concept, but the O'Malley administration bill marks the first effort to set the goal into law. And while there are numerous such projects in the works, support for them - political and financial - has not always been as strong as it should be.

Transit-oriented development should be a no-brainer. Building projects with retail, offices, residential and parking facilities immediately adjacent to rail or bus service increase ridership and better serve the community.

As we've noted many times before, transit is going to play a bigger role in Maryland and elsewhere. Rising energy costs, increasing traffic congestion and growing concerns about greenhouse gases and other tailpipe pollutants have made that a sure bet.

But promoting development is quite a departure from the traditional role of the MTA as merely a builder and operator of transit lines. It means, for instance, forging agreements with developers and local government to encourage visionary projects. That may involve promoting tax abatements or zoning exceptions, the standard tools of local government-fostered economic development.

Already, there are at least 20 projects under consideration in the Baltimore area. The most high-profile is in Owings Mills, where a 250-room hotel, shops, offices, restaurants and 450 residences will soon sprout from a former Metro parking lot. Plans for the State Center Metro stop are just as ambitious, with a potential $1 billion investment.

On the MARC commuter rail lines, there are expectations for new development at Odenton and Savage. MARC's West Baltimore station may get similar treatment. It is, after all, not only a MARC stop but an expected station on the proposed east-west Red Line.

Maryland needs this kind of development to handle the incoming jobs related to recent military base realignment and closure (BRAC) decisions. But that's just one corner of a broader canvas. We need to unlock the potential of all the transit stations in the Washington-Baltimore area. It's not just about avoiding traffic gridlock but improving the region's quality of life.

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