Baltimore-area travelers remained stuck in traffic even as congestion eased elsewhere in the months leading up to the recession, a new analysis reveals.
A jump in fuel prices triggered a slight reduction in backups in most metropolitan areas in 2007, according to a report released Wednesday by the Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked urban "mobility" since the 1980s. Travelers spent an hour less in traffic than they did the year before and wasted a gallon less gasoline, the think tank found - not much relief, perhaps, but the first break in 25 years of near-constant increases in gridlock.
In the Baltimore area, however, congestion continued unabated and even increased in some respects, the data show. The institute ranked the region as having the 18th-worst traffic among large metro areas - and 14th-worst during rush hour.
The average rush-hour traveler lost 44 hours, or more than a full workweek, in slowed or stopped traffic per year, the institute calculated, and wasted 32 gallons of gas. Those delays cost each commuter $982, it figured.
Baltimore's traffic might have bucked the national trend a bit because of its proximity to the Washington area, said institute researcher David Schrank. Delays around the nation's capital increased in 2007, boosting the region from eighth- to seventh-most congested.
Travel has slackened noticeably everywhere, including in Baltimore, since the recession began, with federal data indicating that the number of miles driven has dropped by 4 percent nationwide. In Maryland, the number of miles driven in the first three months of this year was about 1 percent below what it had been in 2008, said Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
But the Texas institute researcher cautions that the recent respite from gridlock is small and probably won't last when the economy recovers.
"There may not be a better time than right now to figure out how to increase our transportation system," said Schrank.
State and local officials say they're working to ease congestion in a variety of ways, with highway and transit upgrades, and an expansion of bicycling in the city. Work on widening the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the Beltway to Interstate 195 is supposed to be finished by fall 2011, while the first express toll lanes in Maryland will debut the following year on I-95 between the city line and White Marsh, according to Cahalan. An upgrade of the Charles Street interchange of the Beltway in the Towson area also should be finished in 2012, he said.
The state's budget crunch has put a crimp in plans to improve roads and intersections around Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, but the state still plans to spend $30 million around each military base to handle projected increases in traffic as their work forces expand with a nationwide realignment of defense workers.
Transit advocates, though, say they see glimmers of hope for long-term change in travel habits, with a 4 percent jump in ridership on buses and rail in the state even with the recession. And they say they're looking to build on that.
In a bid to ease downtown traffic, the city plans to bring back and expand shuttle-bus service, with 21 hybrid buses running on three routes. Renamed the "Charm City Circulator," the first route along Pratt and Lombard streets is due to start this summer, with the other two routes to be launched after Labor Day.
The city also has launched a new water taxi service in the Inner Harbor aimed at attracting commuters as well as tourists, noted Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation. The city is creating new bike lanes in the southeastern and northern areas, he said.
To have a real hope of easing gridlock, though, advocates say the area's disjointed transit system needs a major upgrade.
"People who want to get out of their cars, pay less at the pump and spend more quality time at home ... are forced to drive to work," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, deputy director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "We don't have the choices we need, and the state and federal government need to start providing them."
Transit advocates are pinning their hopes on building the proposed east-west Red Line, which would tie in with the Metro and light rail lines.
With debate still intense over where the new rail line should run, state officials are expected to pick a route sometime this summer and seek federal funding to begin construction by 2012.
"We'll have a system, instead of three lines," said Otis Rolley III, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. "That's also going to change behavior."