How will we get around tomorrow?


The work of transportation planners isn't "social engineering," but it is surely engineering with a profound social impact.

Over the past two generations, few acts of government have changed the lives of Marylanders as much as decisions about roads: The construction of the Bay Bridge that opened the floodgates to Ocean City. The laying of the Beltway around Baltimore that invited suburban exodus. And more recently, the construction of Interstates 795 and 97 and Md. 24, expanding development into Carroll, Anne Arundel and Harford counties respectively.

If you wanted to peer into a crystal ball to foresee the next such monumental highway project in Maryland, however, you'd probably come up blank. The draft of a new long-range transportation study by experts from around the region hints at nothing so dramatic as to alter landscape and lifestyle.

The panel's recommendations for the next quarter-century include widening the most congested sections of the Beltway to eight lanes, double-tracking the Central Light Rail Line and extending it to White Marsh in the east, to Marley Station in the south and to the Social Security Administration complex in the west.

Their plan is reasonable, realistic -- and short of what this area needs. A Baltimore region struggling to meet new federal air quality standards requires a greater emphasis on mass transportation -- suburb to suburb as well as suburb to city. It also means providing adequate parking (and maybe even separate highway off-ramps) for suburbanites who opt to use light rail for the final leg of their ride into the city, since if they can't get onto light rail quickly, they'll never leave their autos.

The Baltimore Metro Council's transportation task force certainly had reason for being cautious. So long as free parking abounds in the growing suburban workplace, the impetus that makes mass transit so essential in the city isn't present. Also, it's hard to foresee trends that might impact transportation, such as increased "telecommuting" by people working from their home computers.

But maintaining the status quo is not what the Baltimore region needs if it wants cleaner air, a healthy Chesapeake Bay and more efficient land use. The Metro Council must help the region set the agenda on this. The excuse that "people won't change their habits" shouldn't discourage forward thinking from the transportation professionals, who actually have seen their work over 40 years change people's habits a great deal.

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