Top 10 Md. transportation stories: 2000-2009

Apart from disasters, transportation stories tend to unfold over the course of many years. Some of the ones that garner big headlines at the time will be all but forgotten in a few years time. So in choosing the Top 10 Maryland transportation stories of the past decade, it helps to project forward to 2020 or 2030 and look back at what made a lasting difference.

A little disclosure is in order. I have covered transportation for The Sun since 2004 and before that followed many transportation-related stories as a State House Bureau reporter. So there might be a bias in favor of the stories I covered. (Thanks to my colleague Scott Calvert to reminding me of the Howard Street Tunnel fire, which occurred before my time on the beat.)

With those caveats, I present my top 10 in the bottom-to-top format made wildly popular by David Letterman:


10. Light rail double-tracking project completed. When Baltimore's light rail system opened early in the 1990s, it soon became clear that the system had been built on the cheap. The decision to run trains on a single track over long stretches led to constant delays and operational difficulties. Thus, under the Glendening administration, the decision was made to add a second track. The Ehrlich administration then made a tough decision to expedite the work by closing down the southern and northern stretches of the system for periods of about a year. It was a rough time for light rail users, but the project was finally completed in early 2006, and the result has been much more reliable service on this still image-impaired system.

                                                                                                 Sun photo/Amy Davis/2006      

                                                                                   Sun photo/Robert Hamilton/2004

Emergency responders at fatal crash in Gamber, Carroll County.

9. Highway deaths continue to take toll. If 600 people had died in a single transportation disaster in Maryland, there's no question it would be No. 1 on this list. But the continuing carnage on state highways dribbles in at the rate of a story or two a day -- usually brief items of three paragraphs or less. Each year of this decade, the toll has hovered around 600 a year. By the time the final totals are talllied, more than 6,000 people -- twice the number killed on 9/11 -- will have died on state roads. One ray of hope: The number in 2008 dropped below 600. And it could go even lower this year.

8. State struggles to fund transportation as gas tax stays put. The state's Transportation Trust Fund revenue continues to lag far behind the demand for projects as politics keeps the gas tax stuck at the early-1990s level of 23.5 percent a gallon. Both the Ehrlich administration (2004) and the O'Malley administration (2007) pushed through large revenue measures but both looked to other sources for funds. For Ehrlich, it was registration fees; for O'Malley, titling taxes and the sales tax. But neither package raised enough money the withstand the current recession.

Photo by Jerry Neblett/2004      

7.  Water taxi capsizes in Baltimore Harbor. The most heart-wrenching Maryland transportation story of the decade was one that brought the city national attention. Five people were killed -- and a little girl permanently disabled -- when a seemingly routine water taxi trip from Fort McHenry to Fells Point aboard the Lady D turned into a nightmare when a powerful squall struck the heavily loaded pontoon craft on March 6, 2004. It took a heroic rescue effort to keep the toll from going higher.

                                                                   Sun photo/Karl Merton Ferron/2002

6. Wheels fall off MTA buses. From August 2001 until June 2002, wheels fell of 18 MTA buses, leading to 54 injury claims and the ouster of the agency's acting administrator. The problems in the MTA's bus maintenance operation cast a cloud over the agency's image that lingers despite the fact there has not been a recurrence in many years. Will that change now that the MTA is moving in the direction of a fleet entirely made up of diesel-electric hybrids that are cleaner and more reliable?

                                                                                                             Sun photo/Barbara Haddock-Taylor       

Governor Martin O'Malley, with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings,  announces decision on Red Line.

5. Red Line, Purple Line advance. Proposed transit lines in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs advance through the arduous process of public hearings and planning  to the point where Gov. Martin O'Malley could choose a specific mode (light rail) and route for the two projects in 2009. The choices were controversial -- especially in the case of Baltimore's Red Line -- but the decision on whether the projects will be approved is now in the hands of the federal goverment.

                                                                                                                                                   Sun photo/2008       

4. Bay Bridge truck crash uncovers structural flaws. If the decade brought  a single photographic image of transportation in Maryland that will linger in people's minds, it is that of a tractor-trailer being pulled from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay after it crashed through the barriers on the eastbound span and went over the side, killing its driver. An inspection after the August 2008 crash revealed corrosion of the metal devices that attach the barriers to the deck -- forcing emergency repairs that tied up traffic on the bridge for weeks. The work was completed earlier than originally estimated, but no repairs could change the fact we will never cross the bridge wiith the same confidence we had before the crash.



Wahington Post photo/2008            

3. New  Woodrow Wilson Bridge opens. After decades of talk about the need to replace the obsolete and deteriorating bridge that carried the Capital Beltway over the Potomac River from Oxon Hill to Alexandria, Va., preliminary construction work finally got under way in 2000. The first span of the new bridge opened in 2006, clearing the way for the demolition of the  old bridge later that year and construction of the second span, which opened in 2008. And it was done on time and within its budget.

                                                                                                 Sun photo/Lloyd Fox/2006       
    Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at groundbreaking of Intercounty Connector.

2. Intercounty Connector approved; construction begins. After almost a half-century of wrangling between highway advocates and environmentalists, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fulfilled a campaign promise in 2006 by winning federal approval of the ICC -- an 18-mile toll road connecting Interstate 95 wiith the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County. When a lawsuit seeking to block the highway fails in federal court in 2007, the game is over. Construction is now well under way. The irony factor: When the first segment of the ICC opens in October 2010, the man who gets to cut the ribbon will presumably be Ehrlich's arch-rival, O'Malley.

1. Derailment, fire close Howard Street Tunnel.

 When a CSX freight train carrrying hazardous chemicals derailed in the century-old Howard Street Tunnel on July 18, 2001, the resulting underground fire and water main break closed down much of downtown for almost a week and brought East Coast freight traffic to a halt. For many Baltimoreans it was the first they'd heard of  the tunnel, but it was a reminder to the industry and national transportation officials that Baltimore is a dangerous bottleneck in the nation's freight rail system. Amazingly, no one was injured in what could have been a serious disaster. Two months later, four jetliners were hijacked on 9/11 and the memories of the Howard Street debacle quickly receded. As the decade ends, little progress has been made toward replacing the tunnel.


Sun photo/2001

Obviously a lot of stories didn't make the final cut. They included the Interstate 95 express toll lane project, the poorly  received Greater Balltimore Bus Initiative, the decision to move to a hybrid bus fleet, the botched repaving of the Bay Bridge, the introduction of speed cameras  and the continuing growth of congestion in the region. And then there were the ones that readers will recall that I did not.

Readers of this blog should consider this list a draft. Make a good case that something else should be in the Top 10 and you might see it there in the final version.