A holistic approach to transportation in Baltimore County

As someone who previously worked in the state and federal departments of transportation, I recognize firsthand the caliber of talent in the Baltimore County Department of Public Works. Unfortunately, the county charter gives this agency an almost-exclusive focus on highway transportation when our communities need to also look at pedestrian connections, bicycling and transit where appropriate. When the Baltimore County Council considers charter changes in the spring, there should be a particular focus on making our public works department a 21st century agency.

The charter should be amended to replace the current public works agency with a Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, with a specific charge to focus on safety and multimodalism — not just highway engineering. Baltimore County is a different place than it was in 1956, when the charter was adopted. The constituents I represent in Towson support a pilot program to look at the effectiveness of a shuttle in the downtown core. Residents along corridors like Regester Avenue and Stevenson Lane are frustrated by the absence of effective traffic calming — a problem experienced throughout Baltimore County.

Under a new county executive, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure could undertake other strategies to improve communities from Catonsville to Dundalk.

First, Baltimore County needs to de-politicize the way that roads are resurfaced. This year, the county will spend $36.5 million to pave its highways, with a boost in support from the Hogan administration. Unfortunately, the Kamenetz administration has steered this money into certain council districts, even though the budget plan contains a clear list of roads ranked for improvement by engineers. In Towson, Bosley Avenue and Stevenson Lane crumble despite the Kamenetz administration’s push for redevelopment. The next county executive should consider the requests of community associations and council members, but largely resurface roads in an equitable and nonpolitical manner.

Second, Baltimore County should improve public notification for major public works projects. Last fall, the county started widening Towsontown Boulevard near Osler Drive with no notice to adjacent communities. Transportation projects work better when there is collaboration.

Third, the county should proactively apply for state funding. Baltimore County routinely misses opportunities to apply for grants through the Transportation Alternatives Program, which is administered through the Maryland Department of Transportation. While other jurisdictions benefit from the Safe Routes to School initiative and the Recreational Trails Program, Baltimore County has not partnered with neighborhoods to pursue state funding.

In central Baltimore County, the most glaring missed opportunity is the Towson Circulator. As downtown Towson grows, there is little ability to expand its roads to deal with the increase in traffic. Transit must be part of the solution, which is a study by the Greater Towson Committee concluded that a circulator could “benefit the Towson community and the continued vitality and attractiveness of the core of Towson." Unfortunately, while the Hogan administration funded planning for this service, County Executive Kamenetz refused to support even a pilot program.

Finally, the next county executive should look at the future of the local water system. In 1924, the Maryland General Assembly approved the Metropolitan District Act, which allows Baltimore City to distribute the water provided by reservoirs within the county’s borders. Baltimore City then bills county residents for these services. To many residents, the billing process — and the interjurisdictional process for fixing water main breaks — is downright confusing.

In 2010, then-Councilman Kevin Kamenetz passed a resolution urging the state government, Baltimore County and local jurisdictions to look at the feasibility of a regional water system. The approaching centennial of the Metropolitan District Act is an appropriate time to consider this option.

Baltimore County is a vibrant, diverse jurisdiction with a bright future. But a dialogue about the future of its transportation and infrastructure is long overdue.

David Marks (dmarks@baltimorecountymd.gov) represents Towson, Carney and Perry Hall on the Baltimore County Council. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Transportation.

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