State hopes to ease some Baltimore-area traffic jams

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In the stop-and-go world of Baltimore-area traffic, there's a lot more braking than commuters and transportation officials would like.

Take Russell Allen, a Federal Hill resident who gets in his silver Ford Edge every weekday morning before 7:30 and steers south toward Fort Meade and the region's biggest bottleneck: Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 175.

The trip starts fine. But around Route 100, Allen's windshield relfects a dazzling array of red taillights. "And it stays that way until I get to work — four miles and 20 minutes later," said Allen, 52, who works for the Army.

Going in the opposite direction in late afternoon is even more excruciating, as northbound commuters try to merge with drivers who opted to leave work by Route 32, slightly more than two miles south. The resulting mixing bowl creates a daily backup that averages nearly 10 miles, according to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Now that the General Assembly has approved a gas tax hike expected to generate $4.4 billion over the next six years, transportation officials see an opportunity to address some of the region's chronic trouble spots. They're planning to modify dangerous 1960s-style cloverleaf exchanges such as one at Harford Road and the Beltway — the second-worst bottleneck — and to make other localized remedies that cost a few million dollars.

But fixing some problems — like the B-W Parkway — will happen "when we make cars that fly," deadpanned John Powell Jr., Howard County's transportation chief.

For area travelers, that will mean more lost time and money. Congestion costs the average driver $908 annually in lost time and wasted fuel, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. The same beleaguered motorist idles away 41 hours — a week's vacation — looking at the bumpers ahead.

"You don't know how much time to leave when you have an appointment. You can be early, be late or be on time," said Linda Alvarez, a home health aide from Towson who was filling her travel mug with coffee at a White Marsh convenience store before tackling the Interstate 95 construction zone. "You need a crystal ball."

The Baltimore region's top 10 bottlenecks come in all varieties. Half are on the Beltway and two are on I-95 north of the city, where thousands of commuters pour in from Harford and Cecil counties each day. Another trouble spot develops on I-95 in Harford County during November and December, as holiday travelers head home after visits with family and friends. And, in a twist, two of the congestion culprits are byproducts of construction aimed at making roads more efficient and safer.

As the region continues to grow — government estimates say that by 2040 the population will increase 38 percent and employment will rise 47 percent — officials will be hard-pressed to ease the congestion. Planning and paying for that future is moving as slowly as the traffic.

"There have been no major projects to alleviate the situation, and projects take a long time to get off the ground," said Todd Lange, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's director of transportation planning. Four times a year, the council, which advises the region's governments on transportation, calculates the region's top 10 congestion magnets using a formula that takes into account the number of daily backups, the average duration and the average length.

"With new money comes a lot of expectations," Lange said. "There's a lot of needs and a lot of eyes watching what's going to happen over the next few years. It's time to focus."

Armed with GPS units, smartphone traffic apps and radio reports, drivers do the best they can. Government agencies such as the State Highway Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority pass along information from traffic cameras and through email and text messages, and dispatch tow trucks to clear breakdowns and accidents as quickly as possible.

That only goes so far.

"We're surrounded," said Charlie Alves, director of route sales for Baltimore's H&S Bakery, which has about 100 drivers who log a total of 2 million miles annually. "We try to find the back roads to meet our deadlines, but it is a major inconvenience. The traffic by itself is bad, and then you run into a fender-bender and — hello? — it's over."

Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said congestion delays hit haulers, especially independent drivers, hard. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates the average cost of congestion for truckers at $88 an hour.

"One guy who runs his own truck is building business around moving loads, sometimes multiple loads, in a single day. You force him to sit in traffic, and he isn't making money. He's losing money," Campion said.

Truck drivers also risk running out of time. Federal safety regulations limit daily driving to 11 hours and no more than 82 hours within a seven-day period.

"With congestion, you can run out the clock and end up with truck drivers stuck on the shoulder of the road, which is not what anybody really wants," Campion said.

By all accounts, the Baltimore region's traffic congestion isn't as bad as in Washington or Los Angeles. In its score card released last week, INRIX, a traffic data collection company, ranked the region No. 17, without a single road in the Top 100.

INRIX and the state measure route dependability. Eleven segments of the Beltway, Interstate 695, are in the top 30 statewide for being unreliable in the morning. The number drops to six during the evening commute.

"If the congestion is bad on a good day, God forbid you add rain or snow to the picture. You can double your commute," said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. She added, "For the daily commuter, the reality is if your options are limited and you have to use 695 or 95, plan with the idea that you're going to get stuck in traffic."

The responsibility for finding solutions is shared. Seven of the 10 bottlenecks on the list — including No. 1 — are administered by the State Highway Administration, which maintains roads that carry 70 percent of Maryland's traffic. Two bottlenecks are the responsibility of the Maryland Transportation Authority, an agency that raises its own construction money through tolls at bridges and tunnels. The third controlling entity — by act of Congress — is the National Park Service, which owns 19 miles of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from Route 175 to Washington.

Before the promise of new gas tax revenue, the SHA was forced to concentrate on preserving bridges and roads to prevent further deterioration, safety issues and short-term fixes to nagging problems, said Administrator Melinda Peters.

Last November, the agency asked the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board to add $6.4 million in federal funds so that it could begin planning "low-cost improvements" to alleviate 14 choke points on the Beltway. The upgrades center on widening the road where possible and adding transition lanes at interchanges.

The SHA spent $18.3 million to replace the eight-lane bridge carrying the Beltway over Liberty Road. This fall, it is expected to complete a three-year, $13.7 million project to replace the Frederick Road Bridge with a wider, higher overpass that also will accommodate future Beltway widening.

An infusion of transportation funding will allow engineers to begin looking at other projects, said Doug Simmons, the agency's deputy administrator for engineering and planning.

For example, by modifying the cloverleaf interchange at Harford Road, Inner Loop traffic entering and exiting the Beltway would no longer have to perform a dangerous weave and merge, Simmons said. That project could begin as early as next spring.

"We think that would make a significant difference, at a cost of $3 million to $4 million, by reducing crash rates and improving traffic flow," Simmons said.

A blueprint of sorts exists. Last year TRIP, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the construction industry, insurance companies and unions, said widening the Beltway and replacing a number of bridges at a cost of $1.2 billion was the third most important infrastructure improvement that could be made in the Baltimore-Washington region.

It also called on Maryland officials to improve access to BWI Marshall Airport by spending $220 million to widen three miles of Route 295 between Route 100 and Interstate 195 and build a new interchange at Hanover Road.

As for the No. 1 bottleneck, the future promises more cars and few solutions.

Between now and 2040, transportation planners project the number of north-south trips between Baltimore and Washington will increase 34 percent. Options to widen the parkway start at $463.5 million.

The state can make all the parkway improvements it can afford from Route 175 north. But the other section — south of Route 175 — is owned by the National Park Service, which has long opposed widening the tree-lined roadway beyond its four lanes.

And it might not matter. A 2011 study by state and federal agencies came to three conclusions: Widened sections would attract more traffic; widened sections would not necessarily be less congested than current conditions; and congestion on a widened parkway in 2040 would be similar to today's conditions.

Allen, who transferred to the region last fall from Naples, Italy, said he has found comfort in listening to National Public Radio and a classic rock station as he endures his commute. And he has words of comfort for his fellow parkway sufferers: "I can assure the people of Baltimore that the traffic is much worse in Naples."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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