GETTING THERE: THE PAINS OF COMMUTING New needs outpace roads, transit lines

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne S. George, who drives every morning from her home in Parkville to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, is one of a hardy band of commuting pioneers in this region. And like most pioneers, she has had to learn to rough it.

An increasing number of Baltimore-area commuters are no longer living in the suburbs and working in the city, transportation planners say. They are scurrying from their suburban homes to their suburban jobs.

Ms. George, a 44-year-old marine biology teacher, would prefer to ride public transportation to Silver Spring, but that would take too many connections and too much time. She would move, but loves neighborly, affordable Baltimore. So she copes with frequent car repairs, steep gasoline bills, 12-mile backups on Interstate 95 -- and a little guilt.

"Teaching kids conservation is a part of my act," she said, "and I feel so guilty every morning, driving past all these people who, just like me, have just one person in their car."

Later, she added: "I've told my son to become a traffic engineer. In the future, we may not have a lot of things, but we'll always have traffic."

The problem is that this region, like most metropolitan areas, is hard-wired with a road and transit network designed to speed people from residential areas to the city center and back again -- with interstate highways designed for long-distance travelers. Moving from suburb to suburb requires a more circuitous route.

The result is that the average commuter is spending more time on the road and covering more ground. Interstates designed for long-distance drives are clogged with local traffic. Meandering country roads and bridges, built for hay wagons and combines, are being pounded by Jeep Cherokees and Lexus sedans. And fewer commuters can use mass transit.

Public and private transportation officials, planners and some civilian commuters, in comments about recent commuting trends in the region, say Baltimore-area residents do not routinely face the epic delays and monumental tie-ups that plague more densely populated regions, such as those around Los Angeles, New York or even Washington.

But Baltimore's traditional and suburb-to-suburb commuters still face their share of frustrations -- such as daily rush-hour backups on the southwest and northeast sides of the Beltway, chronic overcrowding on commuter trains between Washington and Baltimore, and a bus system that is late about 20 percent of the time.

Traffic experts say at least some of these problems are linked to new living and working patterns.

Rebuilding road and transit networks to accommodate those patterns will be slow and difficult. "There's no quick fix," said Charles R. Goodman, director of transportation planning for the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.

One solution is for local governments to use their zoning power to channel residential and commercial growth around existing transportation, Mr. Goodman said. Then the roads and mass transit links in those corridors must be improved to handle the increased volume.

The new commuting pattern has prompted the state Department of Transportation to recommend such mammoth projects as expansion of the northeast and southwest sections of the Baltimore Beltway from six to eight lanes, a task that would cost an estimated $650 million -- if the money is ever found to do it.

That pattern also has affected transportation on a smaller scale.

The Paper Mill Road bridge over Loch Raven Reservoir, the Carroll Road bridge over the Carroll Branch creek and the Sparks Road bridge over the Gunpowder Falls were all built to handle rural traffic. All now carry commuters from eastern Baltimore County and western Harford County to the Hunt Valley #i shopping, industrial and corporate district. All were recently closed for repairs.

One driver who called The Sun's telephone information line -- Sundial -- characterized the Hunt Valley area as "the perfect bottleneck."

People don't realize when they move to the country that the roads will be crowded with other people just like themselves, said Donald W. Brewer, commuter assistance officer for Baltimore County.

Businesses also move to the suburbs without giving enough weight to transportation problems, he said. He recalled meeting with employees of a firm that is moving its clerical and midlevel staff from downtown Baltimore to Owings Mills. Many of those workers now live in Harford County.

"They wanted me to give them some magical route they could take that would get them from Abingdon to Owings Mills without taking the Beltway and without taking two hours each way," Mr. Brewer said. He knows of no such route.

The executive who decided to shift operations, Mr. Brewer said, sails to work in the Inner Harbor aboard his boat -- and will continue to do so, because the firm's executive offices are not moving.

Planners are jittery that the new commuting pattern will make it even harder to expand mass transit, considered far more efficient than private automobiles.

Getting area workers out of their cars and into van pools or onto buses is already a tough job because they "live scattered all over the place," said Nancy Van Winter, executive director of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Commuter Transportation Center.

Buses are available to BWI from Baltimore, she said, but only 10 percent of the workers live there.

Since it opened in 1983, Baltimore's Metro has expanded to Owings Mills and grown from 17,000 riders a day to 50,000 a day. The Mass Transit Administration figures the line has reduced rush-hour traffic in that corridor by about 1,400 vehicles.

But existing trains could easily accommodate more riders, and growth has been slow over the past year. Planners worry that the more people who work in the suburbs, the fewer potential riders the Metro will have.

Baltimore's state-run bus service is also trying to attract new riders by adapting to new commuting patterns -- scheduling express buses or "flyers" from park-and-ride lots on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.

But it is hard to schedule buses for suburb-to-suburb routes, because such commuters travel to and from widely scattered points.

Meanwhile, some of the bus system's 200,000 to 250,000 daily riders are unhappy -- judging from nearly 190 calls from commuters to Sundial -- about delays that result in an on-time record state officials estimate at only 80 percent. The Mass Transit Administration considers a bus on time if it reaches a stop within two minutes of the scheduled time.

"I would really like to take a bus, but I cannot depend on the connections and the bus getting me to where I want to be on time," said one area commuter who drives.

Improving the on-time performance of buses is the MTA's top priority, and biggest headache, said MTA administrator Ronald J. Hartman. "We've got to make them run on time," he said, but the system is hobbled by potholed or overcrowded roadways -- something the MTA can't control.

Among the steps the MTA is taking to improve on-time performance is the breaking up of some bus routes into shorter routes. And a new $11 million computerized tracking system has been installed to keep tabs on the exact location of each bus. The system also improves security by permitting dispatchers to eavesdrop on what is being said on buses during an emergency.

The system, now operating with only 50 of the fleet's 900 buses, is undergoing a yearlong test and will be expanded to the entire fleet.

Maryland Rail Commuter service to Washington is suffering, too -- from its own success. There are not enough parking spaces, stations and seats for current riders. All rush-hour trains are standing-room only.

"Every time we purchase equipment, ridership levels have grown faster than we have anticipated," said Joseph Nessel, director of passenger services for MARC. "The demand is just phenomenal."

Ridership on one line -- linking Penn Station in Baltimore to Union Station in Washington -- grew by46 percent in the past year.State transportation planners estimate that pent-up demand could be triple the 10,200 riders who now use the two MARC lines serving the Baltimore-Washington corridor each day.

The state has purchased 37 new or refurbished cars -- which will increase its current 63-car fleet by almost 60 percent. But the equipment will not be delivered until April 1.

Some riders complain about equipment failures -- such as the loss of air conditioning in the summer or delays due to frozen signals in the winter. Sometimes more serious incidents occur.

Kathryn Waters, a Bolton Hill resident who works in Washington, was heading home on the MARC system Aug. 30 when her train broke down in a tunnel. For 90 minutes, anxious passengers sat in the dark and the suffocating heat.

MARC officials, who are investigating the Aug. 30 incident, insist problems are rare.

"We're satisfied with where the service is going," Mr. Nessel said. "Our on-time performance is in the low- to mid-90 percentile.

"But, of course, to the commuter whose train gets hit [by delays] two days in a week, that's meaningless," he said.

Some problems are beyond the state's influence, such as the conservative nature of Baltimore-area drivers.

David Sandler, a WBAL-AM reporter who flies over the region and warns motorists of traffic snarls every rush hour, watches from above as thousands of creatures of habit calmly ignore his advice.

"Regardless of what you tell them to do to detour, they stick to [their usual] route," he said.

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