Baltimore-area leaders are poised to adopt a blueprint for the sprawling region's transportation needs that foresees worsening traffic tie-ups over the next 20 years despite spending $16 billion on highway and transit projects.
That prospect irks environmentalists and highway builders alike, though for different reasons.
"In our minds it's a lot of money to spend on something that doubles congestion and worsens air quality," said Alfred W. Barry III, spokesman for a coalition of environmental and urban revitalization groups.
The coalition yesterday called on the Transportation Steering Committee, the regional planning organization that drafted the plan, to take it back to the drawing board.
The plan, called Outlook 2020, is to be reviewed today by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, made up of elected leaders of the city and five suburban counties -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard. The council's steering committee is expected to approve the document Nov. 24.
Coalition members contend that several of the highway projects favored in the plan, notably the Westminster bypass and expansion of Route 32, will foster more sprawl development in the region's outer suburbs, exacerbating traffic and pollution problems the plan is trying to address.
The plan projects a 13 percent increase in the Baltimore region's population over the next 20 years, but a 42 percent growth in total miles traveled.
The blueprint recommends spending $4 billion on new highway and transit projects and another $12 billion to maintain and run the existing road, rail and bus network.
Even with that expenditure, rush-hour gridlock is projected to spread, affecting nearly 32 percent of morning commutes in 2020, up from nearly 18 percent in 1990.
"That's going backward," said Jack Kintslinger, chairman of Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways, a group of construction and business interests.
Business and development groups want more highway construction than the plan envisions, Kintslinger said, to be paid for through a significant increase in state transportation funding.
The plan's projected decline in mass transit ridership over the next 20 years also argues for an overhaul of the existing bus and rail system, Kintslinger said. With the rapid pace of suburban growth over the past 30 years, two-thirds of all commutes in the region are from one suburban location to another.
Air pollution fears
The region is required by federal law to update its transportation plan every three years because the Baltimore area has such a severe summer ozone pollution problem.
However, critics of the plan contend that the expected increase in driving over the next 20 years is likely to undercut any air quality gains because of environmentally cleaner vehicles and fuels.
"This plan is projected [by 2020] to bring us back to the same air pollution we have now from cars and trucks," said Michael Replogle of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Environmentalists and highway advocates agree that one of the plan's biggest flaws is its failure to call for reforms in the region's land-use planning.
A study three years ago found that congestion could be reduced by redirecting as little as 10 percent of the expected population growth from the outer suburbs to existing communities or to areas served by mass transit.
Harvey S. Bloom, transportation planning director of the Metropolitan Council, acknowledged that the region is caught in a dilemma, struggling to build roads and transit to keep up with spreading development, which in turn spurs more traffic.
"We cannot build ourselves out of this," Bloom said.
But he added that until the public demonstrates it wants more controlled growth, transportation plans must be based on existing trends, rather than desired changes.
Two of the region's suburban counties, Anne Arundel and Howard, elected new executives this month who campaigned on slowing growth. But those executives, Anne Arundel's Janet S. Owens and Howard's James N. Robey, do not take office until Dec. 7, after this plan is to be adopted.
Bloom suggested that the debate continue until the next review of transportation needs, scheduled for 2001.
Washington's worse off
While the Baltimore transportation plan seems to please no one, at least the area has one. Washington, D.C., an area with traffic congestion second only to Los Angeles, started work yesterday on its first comprehensive review of roads and transit.
A study released last week by the Texas Transportation Institute found that Washington-area motorists spent 82 hours in 1996 fighting traffic delays, up from 70 hours in 1994.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, meeting with a task force representing 18 jurisdictions in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, gave them six months to devise a blueprint, and promised the financial backing to help carry it out.
Task force members acknowledged the difficulty in drafting a regional solution to transportation problems because of its potential conflict with local economies and land-use policies.
Pub Date: 11/17/98