Baltimoreans face one of nation's longest commutes

Yes, your commute really is that bad. The sixth-longest in the country, in fact.

Byron Haskins recently tried to outsmart the Baltimore Beltway traffic that bedevils his commute between home in Cockeysville and work at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn. Slipping onto a series of surface streets, he made it as far as Northern Parkway.

"And then there was an accident there," the policy analyst said with a sigh. "People like me are always frustrated and looking for something else.

"But there's only the Beltway. It's horrible, and there's no alternative."

Whether they're in the stop-and-go stutter of rush hour on the Beltway, or waiting for a bus that once again is running late, Baltimore-area workers face one of the nation's longest average commuting times, an analysis by the Associated Press found.

It takes nearly 31 minutes on average to get to or from work in the Baltimore region, the sixth-longest commute in the country, according to the analysis of 2013 Census survey data, the most recent available. Only workers in such notoriously congested areas such as New York, Washington, Southern California and San Francisco face longer average commutes.

The analysis also found that solo drivers in the Baltimore region get where they're going the fastest, in 29 minutes on average — though that still is the fourth-slowest in the country. Carpoolers face an average 31-minute commute, while public transit riders clock in at about 55 minutes.

"That's my experience," said Haskins, 60, who said it usually takes 20 to 30 minutes to get to work in the morning, and probably 10 minutes longer to get home at the end of the day. It's been an adjustment for the Detroit native who moved here five years ago.

"In Michigan, you have to accelerate your car to get on the highway," he said wryly, noting how it's just the opposite entering the jammed Beltway. "It's bumper-to-bumper even if I leave at 6:30 [a.m.], especially where [Interstate] 795 comes in."

The I-795 exit is indeed the worst bottleneck in the area, according to a quarterly report by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which is among the local and national groups that study congestion and invariably note what commuters see every day.

Federal transportation experts warn that traffic rivaling a major holiday might someday be the norm for many Americans.

Decades from now, the Department of Transportation said in report, transit systems "will be so backed up that riders will wonder not just when they will get to work, but if they will get there at all. At the airports, and on the highway, every day will be like Thanksgiving is today."

That prediction has opened a growing national divide between cities such as Los Angeles that have been making huge investments in new transit options and other regions that have been unable or unwilling to get ahead of the crisis, including the fast-growing South and Southwest.

In this area, drivers and experts alike point to a range of reasons for the long commutes: aging roadways that always seem to be under construction — like the current Beltway widening project and a repair of Interstate 95 south of the Fort McHenry Tunnel. A public transit system that is overburdened on some lines or follows dated routes that don't mesh with current commuting patterns.

And, simply, too many people trying to get to work at the same time, mostly one to a car.

It all adds up to some cranky commuters who steam about everything from badly timed traffic lights to other drivers.

"Even with EZ Pass, people will stop," said Allison Craig, 32, of her 50-minute drive down I-95 from Havre de Grace to downtown. "Just drive through!"

The AP analysis arrives at a time when commuting is on the minds of many. Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan announced he was killing the proposed 14-mile Red Line light rail route that many businesses, government leaders and residents had hoped would help ease crosstown traffic in Baltimore.

Hogan said that he was "opposed to wasteful boondoggles" and that the line was not the best way to bring jobs to the city. His transportation secretary said the proposed billion-dollar tunnel under downtown was the "fatal flaw" in the Red Line plan.

Advocates say the Red Line, with a route stretching from Woodlawn on the west to Johns Hopkins Bayview on the east, would have been a significant addition to the area's patchwork of transportation options.

"In Baltimore, we don't have a complete transportation system," said Brian O'Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group. "We have pieces."

O'Malley decried the decisions Hogan announced — while approving the Purple Line light rail in the Washington suburbs, the governor added nearly $2 billion to road and bridge work.

"Moving money from transit in your state's principal city to road and highway expansion outside of the city will result in more people driving longer distances, more low-income households cut off from economic opportunities, and more air pollution and land consumption," O'Malley said. "This is not the transportation strategy to strengthen Baltimore as the economic engine for Maryland, to improve the region's most distressed neighborhoods or to improve the air and the Chesapeake Bay."

"Heartbreaking," is how Haskins' co-worker at Social Security, Peter Smith, describes the death of the Red Line. "I was really invested in it."

Smith, 30, a lawyer who lives in Mount Vernon, had anticipated taking the new train to Woodlawn. Instead, at least for the foreseeable future, he'll stick to his usual MTA bus, the No. 40 that goes between Middle River and Security Boulevard, on streets that are congested with cars.

Still, for someone who is committed to public transit, it's still preferable to driving: He enjoys chatting with his fellow riders, marveling at kids from the east side who take a couple of buses to get to Poly and Western high schools, the day laborers, the University of Maryland Medical Center employees and, like him, the federal workers.

He's seen it get more and more crowded in the six years he's been taking it.

"I used to read for the first five minutes, then nap the rest of the way," he said. "Now I usually don't even get a seat — I'm standing."

Smith had a quick commute Friday morning, 34 minutes door to door. More commonly, especially coming home, it's more like 40 or 45 minutes. Still, he's not tempted to drive.

For Duane Price, who works at a medical devices company in Columbia, taking public transit is not so much a matter of choice as of circumstance.

His car died a couple of years ago, and while saving for another one the Cedonia resident has been taking two buses to work. The No. 5 takes him to Hopkins Hospital, where he picks up a commuter bus to Columbia.

What was a 30-minute drive is now a two-hour ride.

"It can be exhausting," Price said. "But you do save a lot of money on car insurance and gas."

Price is participating in a video that the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance is putting together to highlight the area's commuting woes. The Alliance's O'Malley said bus ridership could increase if routes better matched where people need to go.

"Our bus system is a legacy system that is designed to bring people from neighborhoods into downtown," he said. But jobs have spread to outlying areas like Hunt Valley or the airport, and bus routes should be updated to reflect that, O'Malley said.

He also advocates for more incentives for workers to take public transit or carpool.

O'Malley noted that the federal government this year halved the maximum subsidy its employees could use for public transit and vanpooling — and ridership immediately dropped. Maryland gives businesses a tax break for a portion of the cost of providing commuter benefits to employees, and O'Malley said that should be expanded.

Others say flexible hours and telecommuting can help take the strain off area roads.

James Edrington, 44, a management analyst at Social Security in Woodlawn, said he now has the easiest commute of his working life: He drives 21/2 miles from Catonsville to work, a less than 10-minute commute, since being transferred from a downtown location. Plus, he only goes to the office three days a week, working at home the other two days.

Edrington believes he's much more efficient now, especially when he recalls his worst commute — usually more than an hour of battling traffic when he lived and worked at a bank in Atlanta.

"It certainly changed the whole aspect of my day," he said. "I had to calm myself down and ease myself into work."

Still, there is one positive way to look at increased congestion: It means more people have jobs to go to.

"To some extent, more people commuting means a healthier economy," O'Malley said. "But what you really want is to be a city that grows its economy without growing commuting times and congestion."

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Jedra and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Worst commutes

New York area: 35.5 minutes

Washington, D.C., area: 34

Riverside, Calif., area: 31.3

Stockton, Calif., area: 31.3

San Francisco area: 31.1

Baltimore area: 30.8

Chicago area: 30.8

Vallejo, Calif., area: 30.8

Bremerton, Wash., area: 30.1

Atlanta area: 30

Boston area: 30

Source: AP analysis of U.S. Census American Community Survey of 2013

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