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A better way for Towson to get around

Downtown Towson is on the cusp of a building boom that will transform this suburban county seat into one of the most dynamic, cosmopolitan communities in Maryland.

All the elements are in place for this transformation. Towson has two institutions of higher education, Towson University and Goucher College, that not only provide world-class learning but also a work force that stabilizes the commercial core. Residential developments like Towson Green will make sure the downtown area does not become a ghost town after sunset and on the weekends. There are strong private organizations like the Towson Chamber of Commerce that sponsor community events. Baltimore County has poured tens of millions of dollars into the schools that serve downtown Towson, and it recently boosted the police precinct that patrols the commercial area.

Unfortunately, one important element is missing: a plan for dealing with the traffic that comes with new development. It is the biggest complaint I hear from residents. They are proud of their community and optimistic about the future but concerned about the gridlock that will come without thoughtful planning.

Downtown Towson simply does not have the capacity to grow its road network. Building more lanes along York Road would displace businesses, and extending roads would destroy sensitive neighborhoods such as historic East Towson. The county needs to embrace some of the tools that have worked in comparable communities, like Rockville, Bethesda and parts of Baltimore City.

These communities make bicycle improvements a requirement for new development. Baltimore County has taken a good first step by securing $100,000 from the Maryland Department of Transportation to develop bike lanes throughout the Towson area. The next step should be to require that any new construction beyond a certain size includes bike racks and parking. Over the next few years, institutions like Towson University will occupy more of a presence in the commercial core, and college students should be encouraged to leave their cars on campus or at their apartments.

The bigger need, however, is for a transit service that exclusively serves downtown Towson. While there is a university shuttle network, there are no plans for a circulator in the downtown area. Much of downtown Towson's residential growth will occur in 2016 and beyond, so now is the time to plan for a shuttle that could operate similar to the system implemented by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Imagine the possibilities. A senior citizen in Virginia Towers could make an appointment at Greater Baltimore Medical Center without taking a car or hailing a cab. A couple in Burkleigh Square could enjoy a "date night" at the new Towson Square entertainment complex without worrying about parking. Call it the Towson Trolley: a way for residents to enjoy all the benefits of downtown living without clogging our already-congested roads.

Since downtown Towson does not have a business improvement district, such a service would likely have to be operated by government. One possibility would be for Towson University to operate a distinct service, with financial support from other institutions. Another option is through the Maryland Transit Administration's Neighborhood Shuttle program, which operates in Mondawmin and Hampden. There have been attempts to include Towson in this program, but in both 2002 and 2006 implementation was delayed by budget cuts.

The cost for a Towson service was estimated in 2002 to be about $750,000; it is likely higher now due to fuel costs. Some of this cost could be absorbed by fare payers, since the density and level of activity in downtown Towson could likely be much greater than in Mondawmin or Hampden. But Towson also has institutions that could provide help. Earlier plans called for stops at St. Joseph Medical Center, Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Goucher College, Towson University, Towson Commons, the public library and county offices.

One thing is clear: We need to have thoughtful conversations now that lead to real transportation improvements in downtown Towson. The window of opportunity is closing. By partnering with the institutions that already make this community great, our state and county governments can show that Towson is on the move — in more ways than one.

David Marks is county councilman for downtown Towson and was previously chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Transportation. His email is dmarks@baltimorecountymd.gov.

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