Travelers need to lobby for congestion relief


The Maryland Department of Transportation monitors traffic conditions across the state from its operations center in Hanover. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Maryland is reworking its 20-year transportation plan and inviting the state’s residents to say what they would like to see it do.

Reworking the long-range plan is something Maryland routinely does every five years. And as many commuters can attest, there hasn’t been much going on in Maryland transportation. Certainly not in comparison to all the highways and the transit line under reconstruction or construction just south of the Potomac River. Maryland hasn’t even had a transportation secretary since Beverley Swaim-Staley left the job in mid-2012.

Mahlon G. “Lon” Anderson, the managing director of public and government affairs with AAA Mid-Atlantic, often refers to the state as “Rip Van Maryland” when it comes to improving travel conditions.

But it’s possible Maryland will be a player again, thanks to the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act passed by both chambers of the General Assembly and backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. Sponsors of House Bill 1515 say it will generate $4.4 billion in transportation investments over the next six years.

Like Virginia, Maryland was running low on money needed to maintain — let alone improve — its transportation system. And like their Virginia counterparts, Maryland legislators chose this session to break through years of stagnation on the financing side.

In Maryland, there has been a lot of talk about the gas tax increases that will help generate all that new money, but not much about what that money will wind up buying. If we’re really going to attack the transportation problem now, people need to be clear on what it is they want to fix.

Can’t hurt to contribute your view to the state’s survey aimed at identifying the greatest needs and developing strategies to attack them.

If you’re asking what there is to decide, consider that it’s a rare transportation improvement program that is just about improving transportation. Usually, there’s a lot more to it, and every government official involved in the program knows it.

Here’s how the impact of the bill is described toward the top of the Maryland Department of Transportation announcement about its passage: “it will create an additional transportation investment of $4.4 billion over the next six years (FY 2014–FY 2019) for the Maryland Department of Transportation and it will create or support more than 57,200 jobs.”

You won’t find anything in the announcement about how you’re going to get to work faster, or make it on time to your doctor’s appointment.

Yes, it’s just an announcement about a bill’s passage, but if you look at the survey that’s part of the plan development, I think you will see how wide open the field is on the investments that will follow.

The first page of this survey on transportation improvements asks you to list what’s most important to you. Here are your choices:

  • Community Vitality
  • Environmental Stewardship
  • Economic Prosperity
  • System Preservation
  • Quality of Service
  • Safety & Security

You can also suggest another priority. Then move on to the survey question about what strategies you favor for each of those priorities. My top three would be system preservation, quality of service, safety and security.

Looking at the strategies for system preservation from the perspective of someone who lives inside the Capital Beltway, I’m reminded by the survey that this category includes preserving BWI Marshall Airport and the Port of Baltimore.

Among the strategies for improving the quality of service are investments in technology, such as online service, the 511 information system and electronic tolling. They also include fixing highway bottlenecks, building new highways, enhancing transit services and providing real-time information to help travelers make better decisions about timing and routes.

The safety and security strategies include making hazardous locations less hazardous and adding enforcement measures to curb dangerous driving.

If I had picked economic prosperity as a top priority, the suggested strategies would include removing bottlenecks that hinder rail, air and truck freight; improving transit and highway access to employment and commercial centers; and improving airport capacity.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against economic prosperity. But as Dr. Gridlock, I’ve spent years sharing the frustrations of travelers who basically want money invested in congestion relief. When they drive along the skinny side of the Beltway in Bethesda, they’re thinking a lot more about congestion relief than about job creation.

Here’s a link to the Maryland Department of Transportation survey. You can offer your views on it through the end of April.

See a pdf of Maryland’s 2009 transportation plan.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Maggie Fazeli Fard · April 2, 2013