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Siren song of cars and roads


The signs of transportation trouble are everywhere.

Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to slash Amtrak spending nearly in half, from $1.2 billion to $550 million a year beginning in October. A cut that large would force the railroad, which owns key elements of Maryland's busy MARC commuter rail system, to shut down, Amtrak President David Gunn warned.

Last week, the Maryland Transit Administration began hearings on proposed changes to more than 50 of MTA's core bus routes. State officials say the recommendations better reflect the transportation needs of commuters. Another goal is to cut $5 million from the core routes budget. Low-income workers who commute to jobs in the suburbs would suffer, advocates said.

Last week, a developer announced plans for a 4,300-home suburban development on a forested tract in mountainous Allegany County, which usually issues about 100 building permits a year. The site is more than 30 miles from Frederick and 70 miles from Baltimore or Washington. If built, it would bring traffic to an area that has not had to face such problems and put thousands of cars onto already crowded interstates.

In an era when traffic congestion is becoming a way of life, Maryland is a poster child of the bad commute, second among the states for longest average commute - just over 30 minutes each way. Baltimore is also becoming a popular place to live for people who make extreme commutes of 90 minutes or more. Some 5.6 percent of Baltimore residents make these treks each work day, U.S. Census data show, tying it for first in the nation in that category.

It's not that no one is paying attention. There are ambitious and expensive plans on the table. The state is in the first year of a six-year $12.3 billion program to improve highways and public transportation and could get as much as $3.4 billion in federal transportation aid next year.

But it is impossible to defy the laws of transportation physics. Put more cars onto the roads and they will get congested. Build more roads, and more cars will come.

The most common commuting patterns are feeding growing volumes of traffic into teeming roads. Some 70 percent of Maryland's 2.5 million workers drive to work alone, data show. Auto traffic is expected to increase 20 percent in the decade ending in 2010, Federal Highway Administration experts forecast. Freight moved by truck is expected to grow even more.

Two of the 15 worst bottlenecks in America are at the intersections of major Maryland highways - where I-95 and I-270 meet the frequently jammed I-495. Delays at those two intersections cost commuters an estimated 35,000 hours a year in wasted time.

Also, it is becoming difficult to find new routes and much more expensive to build them. The planned 18-mile Intercounty Connector across Montgomery County - intended to relieve heavily burdened I-95 and the Washington Beltway - is expected to cost roughly $2.4 billion, up $600 million from an estimate last fall. Environmental concerns have long delayed decisions on its proposed route.

Meanwhile, soaring housing costs are pushing growing numbers of long-distance commuters into the far suburbs and rural areas. As development sprawls across Southern and Western Maryland, demands for funding of transportation projects in those areas are growing.

Planners and politicians hope increased use of mass transit will help relieve the pain in the heavily traveled Baltimore-Washington corridor. But suburban sprawl, our continuing addiction to autos and the high costs of mass transit projects are daunting hurdles.

Two weeks ago, Army officials unveiled an ambitious proposal to extend the Washington Metro rail system to Fort Meade, where thousands of new federal employees are expected to jam local roads in coming years, and possibly then on to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. But the $2 billion estimated cost of those ideas has some shaking their heads. "That won't happen in our lifetime," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Meade.

State transportation officials would like to establish a transit line to carry commuters and other traffic between Security Square Mall, near the Social Security headquarters at the western edge of Baltimore and Fells Point on the harbor. But some residents have expressed fears that the proposed Red Line might bring crime and more traffic to their communities.

The state also hopes to extend Baltimore's lightly used heavy rail subway system to Morgan State University, with hopes of increasing its utility. A double-tracking project aimed at increasing the reliability of Baltimore's 30-mile light rail line between BWI and Hunt Valley is to be completed this fall.

But cars continue to sing their Siren song. Despite the visible success of the light rail, which opened in 1992, the share of city residents who use mass transit to get to work has declined in recent years. In 1990, three out of 10 city workers got to their jobs using transportation other than cars. In 2000, just over two out of 10 found alternatives to cars, Census data show.

The MARC train system that uses Amtrak and CSX lines to carry passengers between Baltimore and Washington is, despite frustrating service disruptions, Maryland's singular mass transit success - connecting thousands each day to links with BWI and the Washington Metro system at Union Station and New Carrollton.

The federal transportation aid bill approved by the House includes a proposal to make $156 million in improvements to the MARC system. But there are obstacles. Any added service would have to accommodate Amtrak, which also makes heavy use of one of two MARC lines between Baltimore and Washington. CSX operates freight trains on the second line and has indicated it would not welcome extra passenger traffic.

MARC shows how and why mass transit works. It takes people who live in a densely populated corridor to a central location -- Washington - full of jobs. But as suburban sprawl spreads those workers out - and more and more jobs follow a similar pattern of dispersal - it becomes more difficult for mass transit to meet their needs.

Which puts people back in their cars, fighting traffic, demanding that more roads be built.

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