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County Residents' Commutes Inch Up

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page HO03

Howard County residents spent 30 minutes a day on average -- 125 hours a year -- traveling to work in 2003, a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey found.

The average daily commute grew by more than a minute from the previous year and is about five minutes longer than the national average. But it is in line with the 30.2-minute average in Maryland, which has the nation's second-longest one-way commute after New York, according to the Census Bureau.

Traffic makes its way along Route 32 in West Friendship. A third of county residents commute to Baltimore; another third commute to the District. (Grant L. Gursky For The Washington Post)

One-third of Howard residents travel to Washington for their jobs, and another third go to Baltimore, county officials said. "Getting to the center of these cities takes longer each year," said James Irvin, Howard County's director of public works. "The length of the commuting time has a lot to do with the situation outside the county boundaries."

But the county has been trying to do its part. A significant portion of the $6 million the county collects in excise taxes for road improvements each year goes toward state highway projects, Irvin said.

The county has sunk its own money into building additional lanes on Routes 29 and 32, he said. It is helping pay for fourth and fifth lanes along a portion of Route 216, now under construction. And it has contributed toward new interchanges at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway, at Routes 216 and 29, and at Gorman Road/Johns Hopkins and Route 29. The county spent $15 million to $18 million over the years for each interchange, he said.

"If we didn't pitch in our own [county] money, the projects would not happen," Irvin said. "If these major arterial routes are not adequately maintained, people will detour through the neighborhoods to get around congestion."

Exacerbating congestion, Howard County is the most passed-through county in Maryland because it is a crossroads between bustling urban hubs, said Carl Balser, the county's chief of transportation planning.

"So the roads in Howard County become partially saturated with traffic that's not of our making," he said.

Public transportation is not much of an option. Howard Transit, the county's public bus system, has seven routes with only a few connections outside the county, including ones that go to Laurel and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Balser said. Those routes primarily serve the more populated eastern part of the county.

Almost 45 percent of those who ride the buses are taking them to work, according to a 2002 county survey. When asked why they took the bus, about 39 percent said they didn't own a vehicle and 30 percent said they didn't drive, Balser said.

Even so, the census survey found that only 2.8 percent of county residents use public transportation. By contrast, 81 percent commute alone and 12 percent carpool.

Balser said public transportation is not cost-effective in suburban areas such as Howard County, where population clusters are not dense.

"In downtown settings, where you've got office building after office building and residents that are clustered close together, you can fill up buses more readily and the cost per passenger is lower," Balser said. "But in suburban settings, where the travel distances are long and the density is low, the service becomes much more expensive."

It also becomes more of a hassle for passengers, he said. Commuters are spread over such long distances that providing direct routes is tough and transfers become a necessity.

According to the Census Bureau, Howard County and Fort Bend County in Texas tied for 28th place in 2003 for longest one-way commute times among jurisdictions with 250,000 people or more.

The county's ranking has climbed steadily in past years. It was in 37th place in 2002 with an average commute of 28.8 minutes. It was in 50th place in 2001 with an average commute of 28.1 minutes.

In 2000, when the Census Bureau began the survey, Howard County's population was not large enough to qualify for the rankings.

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