Commuting into the 21st Century


Maybe it's asking too much to demand excitement from a document titled, "Baltimore Region Long-Range Transportation Plan."

Maybe it's unrealistic to think a group of transportation technocrats, putting together a report for consumption in Washington, is going to compose a bold, visionary statement.

Maybe it's pie-in-the-sky to think that transportation planning for the Baltimore region for the next quarter-century should be a catalyst for change, rather than tinkering with the status quo.

But wouldn't the recent transportation plan from the Baltimore Metro Council have been more effective if it had stimulated the community to begin thinking about mass transit and the need to change commuting habits?

The council -- a meetinghouse for the leaders of Baltimore city and its five suburban counties -- was charged with putting together this transportation blueprint. Long-range planning for road-building isn't new, but this is the first time it has been done on the underpinning of two major, recent pieces of federal legislation: the $151 billion Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the Clean Air Act amendments, which weigh heavily on Baltimore due to its poor air quality.

A major problem with this transportation report is that it will confuse and estrange a public that is all but oblivious to the possible implications of the Clean Air Act. How is the public supposed to buy into the concept of using mass transit or car-pooling if the transportation planners' recommendations consist merely of widening the Beltway, adding a light rail spoke to White Marsh and getting a more congested rush hour to boot -- with average speeds projected to drop from 50 mph to 43 mph in the year 2020?

In their defense, the planners who fashioned this report didn't have much time and officials in Washington were looking for an instrument of calculation, not inspiration.

What's needed on regional transportation, though, is akin to what Gov. William Donald Schaefer did for Camden Yards: He bucked prevailing wisdom that a downtown ballpark would be a traffic nightmare and made it work. Since it's unlikely the governor will become transportation czar when he leaves office, the Baltimore Metro Council seems the next best candidate to nudge this region into hard choices on transportation for the 21st century. Its latest report, though, falls far short of the mark.

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