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Commuter Line in Southern Md. Remains Just a Train of Thought

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 26, 1996; Page B01

For 23 years, Mary Pumphrey wanted to ride a train from Southern Maryland to her government job in the District.

But Pumphrey, 53, recently retired after years of trying to find car pools, fighting the increased traffic on Route 301 and waiting for a train that never came.

"I had dreams of being able to go on that subway," the La Plata resident said. "Now they're talking about trains coming again. You want to know what I think of the chance that's going to happen in my lifetime? Slim and none."

A recent study of Southern Maryland's traffic problems on Route 301 has revived a long-running debate over whether a commuter rail line should be built to link the rapidly growing area with Washington's Metrorail system.

A 75-member regional task force of government officials, business leaders, environmental experts and residents spent three years reviewing ways to alleviate the traffic problems on Route 301, the region's most congested north-south artery. Their report this summer concluded that the area is not likely to produce enough potential ridership to justify commuter rail for at least 20 years, but that rights of way for the line should be preserved.

In the next few weeks, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead will review the recommendations, including proposed guidelines for allowing denser development along Route 301 in the light rail corridor.

While many local residents dispute the task force report and contend that light rail already makes economic sense, others are even more skeptical than the study panel and say there never will be enough ridership to pay for the rail line.

"I would guess that the chances of being able to serve this whole corridor with a rail would be very, very slim," said Alan Pisarski, who researches transportation in the Washington area.

The problem is twofold. To build ridership along a rail line, residential growth must be concentrated along that corridor at much higher densities than those allowed by Charles County's current land-use plan. The current Charles County Board of Commissioners is not likely to approve major policy changes to that plan.

Even more important are the changing commuting patterns of Charles County residents. As in the rest of the Washington area, those patterns are shifting away from jobs in the District to suburban locations elsewhere in the region. Commuter rail lines typically feed into a central location -- an urban core -- where the majority of the riders work.

The transportation study projected that there will be enough riders in Charles to justify a light rail system by 2020, but only 26 percent of those commuters will be destined for the District. A majority of the commuters would be dispersed throughout the region, making it difficult to construct one rail line to serve them.

The light rail line envisioned in the transportation study would start in White Plains in Charles County and end at the future Branch Avenue Metro station, which isn't projected to open for 10 years. Park-and-ride lots and stations are proposed in White Plains and St. Charles and near Route 228 in Waldorf and Route 205 in Pinefield, Brandywine and Clinton.

The real battle for light rail is likely to be over task force recommendations for denser development. The group recommended allowing seven to 15 residential units an acre within a half mile of the proposed rail stations. Density in many of Charles County's development districts is about five residential units an acre.

"I think people who jump up and say light rail is the answer don't have any comprehension what it's going to mean for the county," said Commissioner Marland Deen (R-3rd District). "We'd have dramatic growth along 301."

But proponents of light rail in Southern Maryland point out that growth is coming anyway. The area is the fastest-growing region in the state, and Charles's population is projected to increase by about 65,000 in the next two decades, up from 111,633 in 1995.

Ridership on the commuter bus service that follows Route 5, operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority, soared from 3,052 a day when it began in 1988 to 26,305 this year.

Proponents of light rail say that interest in mass transit will only grow and that it will be harder to build the rail line in the future if the county doesn't plan for it now.

"If you don't preserve the option now, it's going to be too late as the land in the corridor is developed," said Harvey Berlin, transportation chief for the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.

Interest in light rail in Southern Maryland has been increasing along with the traffic congestion on the region's major commuter routes, where residents have no public transportation beyond a limited bus route to and from the District.

"While I believe in light rail, and I believe in mass transit, I think it's being held up as the solution," said Murray D. Levy (D), president of Charles's Board of Commissioners. "I just don't think it's going to solve all of our transportation needs."

About 68,000 vehicles a day travel Route 301 from Charles County across the Prince George's County line near Brandywine, according to the transportation study. In 20 years, if nothing is done to alleviate the congestion, 160,000 vehicles a day are expected on the road.

Building the rail line, at an estimated cost of $457 million, would attract about 25,000 riders a day within two decades, which would bring in enough commuter fares to repay at least 50 percent of the cost, the study found. Maryland policy requires a projected 50 percent fare return before the state will consider building a commuter rail line.

The projected ridership of 25,000 is enough to convince Frank Enty, executive director of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, that Southern Maryland deserves a shot at light rail.

"You're not just talking about the fix of 301," he said. "You have to talk about the ultimate game plan for Southern Maryland, which is moving people. Light rail seems to be a reasonable and acceptable alternative."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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