Maryland commuter traffic sputters, slowed by recession


The sputtering economy has slowed the growth of road and rail commuting in the Baltimore and Washington regions, state transportation officials said yesterday.

Gasoline and diesel sales statewide have slipped since December, traffic growth on the chronically congested Capital Beltway eased early this year and the number of Baltimore Metro and bus riders dropped by 5.8 percent during the first four months of 1991, according to the Department of Transportation and Mass Transit Administration.

Receipts from the state's 18.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax started to slip in December and plunged in April, when they ran 13.3 percent behind the same month the previous year, said Stuart L. Myers, the Transportation Department's acting deputy secretary for finance.

"That kind of 13 percent drop is very, very, very unusual," said Marvin Bond, a spokesman for the state comptroller's office, which collects gas tax receipts.

Mr. Myers said the figures mean that about 35 million fewer gallons of motor fuel have been sold during the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, than over the same period a year ago. Thus gas tax revenue has declined about $6.5 million.

Both Mr. Myers and Mr. Bond said the figures strongly suggest motorists have cut back on their driving, probably because of the recession.

Ronald J. Hartman, chief of the Mass Transit Administration, also blamed the recession, rather than a 7 percent increase in fares in March, for a decline in the number of passengers boarding Baltimore's mass transit systems. "We are very sensitive to unemployment," he said. "Our ridership decline followed very, very closely the . . . increase in unemployment."

All the loss in Baltimore Metro patronage occurred at inner-city stations where unemployment probably hit hardest, he said. Some suburban stations have shown a growth in passenger use.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reports that passenger volumes grew less than 1 percent on its bus and subway system over the past year, despite the opening of new subway stations in Maryland.

The growth in the number of vehicles using the Capital Beltway slowed earlier this year, probably because of a drop in tourism related to the war with Iraq, said Stephen L. Reich, the state's deputy director of transportation planning.

Despite the general decline in commuter traffic, some transportation facilities seem immune to the recession. A spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority said the number of autos and trucks using the state's toll roads and bridges rose about 2.5 percent over the 10 months ending May 1, compared with the same period last year.

The Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) service, which connects Washington with Baltimore and Western Maryland, has continued to grow at a rate of about 20 percent annually, said Joseph Nessel, director of passenger services.

Mr. Myers of the Transportation Department said preliminary figures from May suggest that gasoline consumption may be on the rise again. "If you listen to some of the major economic indicators, they seem to be saying that if we're not in a recovery, at least the slowdown is slowing down," he said.

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