By Barry Rascovar
Nov. 20, 2017 – When it comes to improving transportation for citizens and businesses in Central Maryland, the state has dropped the ball.
A crucial east-west connecting subway line in Baltimore was summarily cancelled, foregoing $1 billion in federal dollars to save the state money.
An east-west light-rail line to relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway and provide more public transit access for less-affluent citizens in the Washington suburbs was reduced dramatically to save the state money.
A much-needed revamp of Baltimore’s third-rate bus system remains controversial and so far hasn’t produced any new riders.
A plan to experiment with high-tech traffic controls on busy state roads is so modest that the impact on the driving public could be virtually nil.
And now CSX, the railroad born and bred in Baltimore as the B. & O., has pulled out of a plan to enlarge the Howard Street Tunnel, sacrificing potentially enormous future benefits for the sake of short-term, cost-saving profits for its stockholders.
Those first four items are bad news for Jane and Joe Citizen; the last item is terrible news for Baltimore’s vital maritime industry, which badly needs a better way to move more shipping containers to and from the Port of Baltimore.
Priority No. 1: Highways
The Hogan administration is clearly interested in highways over mass transit. But even there, improvements could be a long way off.
Take the much-publicized $50 million upgrade of traffic signals. The governor called it “transformational.” But the “Smart Signals” program doesn’t do much more than experiment with signaling technology that holds great promise but may not be fully ready for prime time.
The sites picked for this upgrade won’t help drivers much, if at all. Take the upgrade in Towson – Charles Street between the traffic light at Kenilworth Drive and I-695 – a mere 1,200 feet. Not much will be gleaned from that “improvement.”
Or take the upgrade in Brooklyn Park, where the new technology will control traffic lights on just an eight-block stretch along Ritchie Highway.
Look at the Annapolis smart signal corridor, extending through just four intersections along Route 2 south from Annapolis Harbor Center. Not much help for drivers there, either.
It’s great the administration is embarking on “smart” transportation technology. If fully implemented, this technology could possibly reduce idling time and carbon dioxide emissions as well as speed commutes. But the choice of such short driving distances means citizens will benefit minimally from this $50 million investment.
Traffic Jam for Buses
Similarly, the much-heralded, $135 million re-make of the Baltimore bus system hasn’t markedly improved travel time for bus commuters. It has done little to effectively connect city residents to suburban job centers. It’s another expensive transportation exercise that seems stuck in traffic.
Meanwhile, CSX’s new CEO has delivered a crushing blow to the governor’s hopes for an economic boost through a public-private effort to enlarge the century-old Howard Street Tunnel. He is out to prove to stockholders he can slash costs, boost quarterly profits and boost stockholder profits.
The $425 million tunnel project became a victim of Wall Street’s lust for short-term earnings gains even if it seriously erodes CSX’s long-term ability to capitalize on Baltimore’s booming container shipping traffic.
Getting federal approval for this project may have been a longshot anyway, according to Mark Reutter in the Baltimore Brew. Yet give the Hogan team credit for pushing ahead in the quest for a solution to the freight-traffic bottleneck caused by the antiquated tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the governor is pushing forward on an impossibly expensive ($9 billion), largely privatized plan to widen the Capital Beltway, I-270 to Frederick and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Yet the obstacles are immense, the price-tag is sure to rise substantially and the benefits have been called into question by members of the Montgomery County Council.
Even if these improvements are in place a decade from now, the rapid evolution of travel technology may make these super-expensive construction projects obsolete before they open.
Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think, which could create a radical transformation of American highways. Among other things, those “Lexus” toll lanes could fail to live up to revenue expectations.
So while the publicity from the governor’s suite promotes a positive image for Hogan’s transportation programs, not much is going smoothly. There have been more detours and bumps in the road than progress.