Only New Yorkers take longer to get to work than commuters in Maryland, according to U.S. Census data released yesterday that reflect a reverse-commute to a growing number of jobs in the suburbs and worsening congestion on the roads.
The average commute to work in Maryland takes 30 minutes, second to New York and well above the national average of 24 minutes. While travel times in Maryland have been inching upward for years, the increase is highest in Baltimore and in Prince George's County, where job losses have translated into longer commutes.
"People historically were commuting from close-in residential neighborhoods to a large concentration of jobs downtown," said Henry Kay, planning director for the Maryland Transit Administration. "But as the jobs shift to other parts of the city and other parts of the region, and to Washington, and housing disperses, too, that conspires against shorter commutes."
Baltimore residents who once rode mass transit to jobs in the city are now hopping in their cars to drive to Columbia and Timonium. Some Baltimore suburbs have seen double-digit job increases, while the city has lost jobs.
In the latest report, the Census Bureau said Baltimore residents averaged 29.7 minutes to get to work in 2002, the fifth-longest commute in the country among cities. In 2000, Baltimore ranked 11th in commute time, at 27.7 minutes. During that span, the city lost 20,000 jobs.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed a transportation plan that focuses on roads over mass transit - a shift from the previous administration.
"Transportation means mass transit and roads," Ehrlich said this month. "We need a balance in this state. We've been out of whack over the years in the percentage of dollars given to each."
At the top of Ehrlich's transportation priority list is building the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County. He plans to widen the Beltway and Interstate 95 north of Baltimore, as well as other roads, and to add toll lanes for drivers who want to buy their way out of congestion.
It's welcome news to commuters such as Jeanne Riley, who lives in North Baltimore and works in Rockville at Human Genome Sciences, a biotech firm. In 13 years of commuting, she's seen the 45-mile, one-way trip that once took 65 minutes lengthen to almost two hours.
"It's gotten much, much worse, and it's frustratingly unpredictable," Riley said. "If anything happens - bad weather, an accident, a school bus - any kind of minor interruption can really have a significant impact and slow you down."
Maryland's poor ranking on commute time can be traced to its two major metropolitan areas - Baltimore and Washington - and the people who live in between. Five Maryland jurisdictions - Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City - placed in the top 40 nationwide for longest commutes.
Prince George's residents had the worst of it in Maryland, averaging 34.6 minutes commuting to work each day, even though the county is well served by the Washington Metro system and several highways.
"It's not a transportation problem; it's an economic development problem," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. "There just aren't enough jobs in Prince George's for its population."
He said the proposed Intercounty Connector, which will cost at least $1.5 billion, would worsen the problem by encouraging companies to locate along the highway in Montgomery County and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
"The answer is state and local policies in Maryland to promote development and transit, the return of jobs to Prince George's and downtown Baltimore, and more affordable housing closer to jobs," Schwartz said.
Baltimore's jump to No. 5 in commute times - city residents now have a longer commute than those in San Francisco (No. 7), Los Angeles (9), Boston (10) and Atlanta (14) - surprised some experts. In surveys by the Texas Transportation Institute, the Baltimore region is usually ranked around No. 20 in terms of congestion. But those surveys look at the entire area, not the city in particular.
"The Baltimore numbers are particularly stark," Schwartz said. "As jobs have moved away from people in Baltimore, they're now having to chase those jobs into the suburbs."
But Donald Fry, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the city is turning a corner and is becoming attractive to businesses again. In winning back employers, he said, it is critical for the city to show that people can move around quickly and easily. The census figures should be taken seriously, he added.
"This is a great warning signal to us," he said, "because normally transportation issues are not addressed until they become a crisis, and this gives us the advance notice we need."
Ehrlich's six-year transportation plan includes a request for federal money to build an east-west transit line in Baltimore and new lines from Bethesda to New Carrollton and along Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.
States with the longest average travel time to work
......................................... in minutes
1. New York ........................ 30.8
2. Maryland .......................... 30.0
3. District of Columbia ........ 29.4
4. New Jersey ....................... 28.3
5. Illinois ............................... 26.7
6. California .......................... 26.6
7. Georgia .............................. 26.5
8. West Virginia ..................... 25.9
9. Massachusettes ................. 25.8
10. Virginia ............................ 25.7
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau / SUN STAFF