Carroll countians likely to continue commuting


SITTING IN a one-hour traffic backup on eastbound Route 140 in Baltimore County during the afternoon rush-hour(s) one day last month, it struck me that the view of Carroll County as a bedroom community for the rest of the region was suspiciously untrue.

The rush-hour line of cars headed into Baltimore County stretched all the way back to the Carroll County line. If Carroll was merely the residence of people employed in Baltimore County (or Pennsylvania), the Route 140 traffic backup should be in the opposite direction.

Indeed, the cars returning to the Carroll "bedroom" from Baltimore County were zipping along Route 140, while we immobile eastbound travelers overheated our engines and tempers.

Now, there's no way to tell exactly where the occupants of those traffic-jammed eastbound vehicles work. Maybe in Frederick County or farther west, maybe in Pennsylvania, possibly in Howard or Anne Arundel counties.

There's also no way to know the destination of these east-bounders. Because of their chosen route, however, it seems logical that they were headed for Baltimore County, Baltimore City or Harford County. Or should I say, for the "bedrooms" of those jurisdictions to the east?

As the evening rush-hour traffic illustrates, the flow is really a two-way pattern. The Route 140 traffic into western Baltimore County at night is almost as great as that coming out.

One could even question (against conventional wisdom) whether cars in both directions on Route 140 that rush hour were really going home from work: Maybe they were visiting or shopping or merely passing through.

According to an article in The Sun last week, fewer than 1 percent of Baltimore County workers commute to Carroll jobs, while a fifth of Carroll workers are employed in Baltimore County. That supports the common perception. Yet traffic flows on major Carroll arteries, including Route 26 in the south, don't seem to be predominantly one-way.

Population patterns, new job patterns and traffic patterns in the Baltimore region have changed significantly over the past quarter-century, the article noted. There is much more job commuting between the suburban counties, rather than between the counties and Baltimore.

The largest percentage of employed people still work in their counties of residence. Only Carroll and Howard counties have less than half their work force employed within their borders.

That statistic often leads to the conclusion that Carroll (and Howard) need to do more to attract large employers and create (( more hometown jobs. But it's not so simple.

Enhancement of the tax-employment base is a natural goal of any jurisdiction, regardless of the number of residents driving outside the county to work. It not only adds to the tax base, but diversifies the economic base.

Yes, more local workers could be employed locally. Some would be able to quit their job-commute outside of Carroll. But most probably, a good-wage employer would attract newcomers to the job force, and workers commuting into Carroll, as well as Carroll commuters.

Carroll County residents appear to be commuting to better jobs elsewhere. The average household income here is 25 percent higher than the Maryland average. Where these people live is not as relevant to their job choice as the pay. Few would quit their jobs to take another in Carroll simply to avoid crossing the county line on the way to work.

Weak wages

In fact, wages of Carroll-based jobs are relatively low, as Towson University economist Michael Funk noted in his recent presentation to the Chamber of Commerce.

The average weekly pay for Carroll-based jobs is $445, compared with $602 in all of Maryland, he pointed out. Many of the Carroll jobs are in government, health services, retail sales and restaurants. Of these, only government positions (county and municipal) approach the Maryland wage average.

In fact, Mr. Funk's statistics show the average weekly wage for new jobs in Carroll food and drink establishments to be $161. For general merchandise stores, the weekly pay is $216. And these are the most prominent private-sector additions to the Carroll economy.

They are hardly the kinds of jobs that will reverse the commuter tide for Carroll. The pay is barely attractive for part-time or entry-level workers. These low-wage jobs may add to the local employment rolls, but only until these workers find something better -- here or in another county.

Truth is, Carroll can't reasonably expect to land a major industrial-wage employer, regardless of how many acres it rezones for that purpose. The competition is enormous.

Carroll residents will continue their daily commute to well-paying jobs elsewhere. That they choose to make that commute, instead of moving closer to their work, is a testimony to the agreeable environment of this county. That is something to nurture, not to disparage.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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