Howard County wants plans for limiting Columbia traffic as development continues

The headquarters building MedStar Health System in Columbia is one of many new constructions in the burgeoning downtown. As more development continues, officials hope a transportation management plan will help limit traffic congestion.
The headquarters building MedStar Health System in Columbia is one of many new constructions in the burgeoning downtown. As more development continues, officials hope a transportation management plan will help limit traffic congestion. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun / BSMG)

Development planned in central Columbia over the next 20 years is prompting Howard County’s Office of Transportation and Downtown Columbia Partnership to craft an updated plan to reduce single-car trips by 15 percent and encourage walking, biking, car-sharing and telecommuting.

The plan calls for property owners to step up commitments to traffic management programs, adding more detailed traffic and parking metrics and encouraging alternative transportation with actions such as adding bike racks in front of buildings. New properties will be required to submit metrics for review by the county every three years until they have achieved traffic management goals.


Traffic impact studies and management plans are already required by the county as part of a development review process, but with this new plan, more robust requirements are being added, said county Transportation Administrator Clive Graham.

A traffic study for the 2010 downtown Columbia plan stated that as development continued, single-car traffic needed to be cut by 15 percent or the area would face heavy congestion and road repairs, such as lane widening and adding a third interchange on Route 29, which could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Weekday traffic in Columbia has already climbed over the last six years. In 2011, an average of 91,000 vehicles made trips in and out of Columbia during the week. Last year that number was nearly 96,000.

The county’s road and transit improvement plans will continue next year, thanks to nearly more than $20 million in capital funds planned for projects including repaved roads, renovated bus stops and bridge improvements.

As building accelerates — more than 5 million square feet of office and retail space and thousands of housing units are planned — the Downtown Columbia Transportation Demand Management Plan presents ways to achieve a 15 percent reduction. Creation of the plan began in 2016, according to Graham, and it is believed to be the first of its kind in the Baltimore region.

“It will make moving to and from and within downtown Columbia easier,” Graham said. “It’s important financially because it seeks to make more efficient use of transportation infrastructure. It will delay or possibly eliminate the need for expensive road upgrades. It’s all about the transportation infrastructure.”

Only one site in Columbia has a transportation management program to mitigate its traffic impact, the Metropolitan apartment building. It offers brochures and a website for information on transportation options, has a bike room and a television in the mail room with regional bus schedule information and traffic updates.

The strategies are an attempt to make the program an amenity to make it easier for residents to get to and from the building, said Justin Schor, a principal with Virginia-based traffic management firm Wells + Associates, which consulted on both the county’s report and the Metropolitan’s program. Schor said that through the program they hope to encourage people to lead “car light” lifestyles in which they rely less on their vehicles, such as having two working adults share one car.

Building manager Caitlin Avramides said the Metropolitan doesn’t keep formal metrics on the success of the program but that the administration has gotten positive feedback from residents who appreciate learning more about their commuting options. The building has no active plans to expand the program.

The county will build a database of every property’s plan and review their implementation every three years. If a property fails to meet traffic management goals, the county will work with owmers to revise and adjust, but unlike some other areas such as Arlington, Va., won’t issue a fine.

Graham called Arlington a leader in its transportation management plan, which encourages businesses to offer employees Metro cards for transit service or a monthly transportation stipend.

“People are used to driving easily to and from and around downtown Columbia,” Graham said. “And I think as it gets denser and more developed, maintaining that level of ease is not going to be possible.”

Officials are gathering public input on the plan, which they hope to implement in August, according to Graham.