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Baltimore's gridlock problem


If getting around Baltimore seems harder these days, there's a reason.

The average person here spends 31 hours a year stuck in traffic and $530 in wasted fuel and other expenses, according to a national study released yesterday, which finds that congestion is costly and getting worse.

The Texas Transportation Institute, in an annual report on congestion in 68 urban areas, calculates that the average American logged 36 hours in stalled or slow-moving traffic in 1999, up from 11 hours in 1982.

In Baltimore, the time spent stewing in traffic has nearly quadrupled in the past two decades.

As for the term "rush hour," one can only dream. There hasn't been a commuter rush limited to 60 minutes since Richard Nixon was president, say researchers. Work-related traffic jams now stretch over six hours each day.

Car-loving Los Angeles retained its rank as the nation's most gridlocked city, where the average person spends 56 hours a year in traffic jams. Washington motorists face the fourth-worst commute in the nation, logging 46 hours a year bumper to bumper, at a cost of $780 per person.

Baltimore ranked 26th -- still among the most congested.

Building more roads isn't the solution, the researchers conclude.

"There hasn't been an urban area able to keep up with traffic growth by trying to build their way out," said David Schrank, a researcher with the Texas institute and co-author of its annual Mobility Report. "It's almost an impossible feat over time."

A companion study released in Washington yesterday dovetailed with that assessment. In a comparison between urban regions that have invested heavily in road building and those that haven't, little difference was found in the amount of traffic congestion.

"Building more roads doesn't seem to help very much," said Barbara McCann, an administrator with the Surface Transportation Policy Project. "The best way to provide relief is with more choices, not more roads."

The range of transportation options in Baltimore, she said, is the reason why commuting here is less painful than in a city such as St. Louis, which has a similar population size and level of traffic congestion. Approximately 180,000 people in Baltimore choose to take transit, bike, walk or telecommute to their jobs, but only 79,000 do so in St. Louis, where their choices are more limited, said McCann. St. Louis ranks 18th on the project's "burden" index, which measured commuter misery. Baltimore is 41st.

"When people have the option to say, 'I'll just take the train,' it makes a huge difference," said McCann.

The data for both reports are based on statistics from 1999, when a solid economy with more jobs, more goods to be moved and more shopping trips by consumers with full wallets meant more trips in the car. Although the late 1990s brought more traffic congestion, it also saw a 21 percent increase in mass transit use, said McCann.

Maryland transit services have shared in that growth. "One of the variables is the little fact that people in trains would literally pass congested highways and see the traffic backed up as they rode on by," said Frank Fulton, spokesman for the Mass Transit Administration. In the past five years light-rail ridership increased by 38 percent, subway by 17 percent and commuter train by 12 percent, he said.

Yesterday's reports "show this region needs to focus on providing alternatives for people to driving alone in their cars," said Dan Pontious, director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership, a coalition of civic and environmental groups.

Next week, the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board will launch a project aimed at doing just that. Vision 2030 is an 18-month project aimed at finding out what residents want. Up to now, the board concentrated heavily on highway construction projects selected by individual counties. Through public meetings and surveys, planners will consider economic development, land use and other issues to create a long-term transportation strategy.

"Vision 2030 will take in a much larger picture of the region, and much of the process is really going to be listening to the public," Pontious said. "And I can't imagine the public wants to be stuck in traffic."

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