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Scrapping of traffic-congestion plan urged

The Baltimore Sun

A coalition of mass-transit advocates urged the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board yesterday to scrap its $8.7 billion draft plan for traffic congestion relief over the next 28 years, contending that the proposal is heavily skewed in favor of highway projects.

The advocates are attacking a potential blueprint for what the region's transportation system would look like in 2035. They say the draft Transportation Outlook 2035, prepared by local governments and the transportation board's staff, directs too much money to road projects, including many that would encourage sprawl and violate the state's Smart Growth policies.

At a public hearing last night, speakers almost unanimously turned thumbs down on a plan that critics described as lacking in regional vision.

Advocates demanded a roughly even split of the funds to finance a full regional rapid transit network and MARC system improvements.

The Greater Baltimore Committee expressed disappointment that the draft didn't include a Metro system extension to Morgan State University and Good Samaritan Hospital.

Gregory Schaffer, president of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, asked why the East Baltimore campus, with more than 6,300 employees, had been left out of plans for a new transit line and a MARC system upgrade.

A contingent of Harford County residents urged the board to take the money proposed to widen Routes 22 and 24 and spend it elsewhere.

And in a moment of semi-comic relief that left some onlookers wincing, transit enthusiast Art Cohen sang his testimony to the tune of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," renamed "The Region of Old Excuses."

The board is made up of the mayors of Baltimore and Annapolis, the top elected officials of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties, and the secretaries of three state government department. Its job is to develop a plan for long-range transportation projects involving federal funds. In a measure of the little-known board's influence, all of its elected members showed up for parts of the hearing.

The board estimated this year that $33.4 billion would be available through 2035 for operations, preservation and expansion of the region's transportation system.

The transit advocates' counterproposal focuses on the board's plans for $8.7 billion to expand the system, including $6 billion for highways and $2.2 billion for transit projects.

A coalition of organizations and citizens -- the Movement of Organizations for Regional Expansion of Transit, or MOREtransit -- called for spending $4.3 billion on transit and $3.9 billion on roads. MOREtransit expressed concern that the board's draft "is in conflict with the very goals that plan has established."

"The plan devotes 71 percent of the budget to highways in order to increase mobility, and still congestion will increase dramatically compared to today's levels," its report says.

The draft plan identifies one "regionally significant" major transit project, the proposed $1.4 billion east-west transit route from Woodlawn to the Fells Point-Canton area known as the Red Line.

Harvey Bloom, transportation director of the board's affiliated Baltimore Metropolitan Council, denied that the draft would give transit short shrift.

"We went with what the [Maryland] Transit Administration was providing us as a priority, and the Red Line was that priority," Bloom said. He added that the apparent decrease in transit funding in the 2035 report reflects not a cut but a revision in costs estimates for the Red Line.

MOREtransit urged the board to scrap the Red Line and adopt its vision of a "Baltimore regional rapid transit system" serving the northern and northeastern transportation corridors out of the city in addition to the east and west. It estimated the cost at more than $3 billion.

Unlike the transit coalition, the Greater Baltimore Committee did not support a shift of funds away from highways to transit projects or a scrapping of the Red Line. But GBC President Donald C. Fry told the board that the plan's omission of the Metro extension on the so-called Green Line and other elements of an ambitious 2002 rail plan were disappointing.

"It send a bad message as to what this region's priorities are," he said.

Fry also faulted the draft for not focusing more on the Pentagon's base realignment and closure process, which is expected to bring thousands of jobs and more traffic to Maryland.

Transit advocates contend that an expanded MARC, with stations serving Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, would be critical to handling a commuter influx.

The MOREtransit report accuses the board of putting too much emphasis on wider roads, saying that widening accounted for 36 of 49 proposed projects. Many of the projects, it suggested, run contrary to Smart Growth and would foster sprawl.

Bloom disputed the suggestion, saying the road projects identified by local jurisdictions would largely serve areas that have been developed.

"Now we're playing catch-up," he said. "I don't think this highway construction is going to perpetuate additional sprawl."

Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former City Council member, summed up the tenor of the hearing after two hours of testimony.

"I don't sense a whole lot of enthusiasm for this plan either in the audience or among elected officials," he said. "We need to go back and redo the plan. We need a plan that has a sense of urgency."

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