An article in Thursday's Maryland Weekly on suburban commuting overstated the combined area of Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The correct figure is 980 square miles.
The long fingers of the Metrorail system reaching into Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and Metro buses, have pried only one of 10 suburban Maryland commuters out of their cars since the subway took its first Maryland farecard in 1978.
This statistic from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments will come as no surprise to the 360,000 Montgomery and Prince George's residents who daily put the rubber to the road to get to work. Surburban employment and residential development are expanding throughout the combined area of nearly one million square miles much faster then the subway system, which now has six stations operating on three lines in the two counties.
"You have to drive to Metro, pay the parking and then you have to ride," said Frank Elward, who gets to work in a van pool. "It (the train) is packed. Every place to stand on the train is occupied. you can't get in the doors. On weekends Metro is very nice but during the week -- impossible."
Many drivers are reluctant to give up their cars, and Prince George's County's chief highway planner, Frank Derro, believes automobile travel "is still the most convenient way" to commute.
"Metro cannot be perceived as the savior for all transportation issues in this region," he said. "It has never been and never will be the answer to all the area's problems. If you made it free you would not get everybody to ride Metro," Derro said.
Driving problems in the 1980s will be aggravated by the fact that 63 percent of the daily work trips that begin in Prince George's or Montgomery end in one of those counties. Explosive growth and development in several parts of the two counties have burdened some major intersections and roads beyond their capacities, creating daily mile-long back-ups at key cross-county intersections that drive up the temperatures of both the stalled autos and their drivers.
Since most major arteries were designed with commuting to Washington in mind, cross-county and intracounty alternatives to the beleaguered Capital Beltway are not enough to deal with the increased traffic in areas such as southern Prince George's and along Montgomery's I-270 corridor.
Moreover, according to planners in both counties, tight budgets mean there is little immediate relief in sight for some of the worst bottlenecks.
Some of the worst traffic jams take place at the Montgomery intersection of Shady Grove Road and I-270, in the middle of the fast-growing industrial and residential corridor between Gaithersburg and Rockville.
At morning rush hour thousands of motorists coming from both directions on 270, all trying to get to work at General Motors, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett Packard and Bechtel Engineering on both sides of Shady Grove Road, meet residents of new subdivisions bound for Washington and other points south in an interchange that funnels all the cars through the same tiny local street, Fields Road. The result is a daily half-mile backup on 270 between 7:30 and 8 a.m.
"There's no question" that the county road system needs upgrading, said Ed Ferber, highway coordinator for the Montgomery planning board. In earlier years the county was a "bedroom community. Now we have a lot of people who are staying and working here. That means we have to improve a lot of county roads other than radial roads to the District of Columbia."
Ferber said Montgomery plans to spend $1 million to enlarge and replace the bridge over I-270 and to take such partial steps as double left-turn lanes on Fields Road. But the permanent solution, a new interchange, depends on slow-moving state plans for a new piece of interstate highway to be called I-370. It will link I-270 with the Shady Grove Metro terminus, which is scheduled to open in 1983 a few miles east of the interchange.
The state highway department is to hold hearings on I-370 in December, but Ferber expressed little hope of quick relief for motorists.
"Being optimistic, it will be three to four years (before I-370 is completed) and that's if everything goes right," he said.
Another major source of commuter irritation is the confluence of Prince George's traffic from the Baltimore Washington Parkway, Kenilworth Avenue (Rte. 201) and Rte. 50 into the District's New York Avenue. In the magic of the morning rush hour, 12 lanes of westbound traffic eventually become two lanes at South Dakota and New York avenues.
Meanwhile, many area commuters are escaping the grind -- or at least sharing the pain -- through car pooling and van pooling.The number of single-passenger autos entering downtown Washington northern Virginia each day fell 9.5 percent between 1975 and 1980, according to the Council of Governments, while the number of car pools increased 6.1 percent. In Maryland at least 3.660 car pools carry three or more riders to work each day, and since last July the number of van pools has increased by 26 percent to 312, according to Vango Inc., a nonprofit state agency promoting van and car pool use.
"I was a lot more tired, I had to worry about the traffic," recalled Betty Colton of the days she commuted in her own car.Colton, one of the 15 passengers in a van pool owned and operated by Allan Drucker, spoke as the vehicle pulled out of Annapolis promptly at 6:43 for the trip to downtown Washington. A piano concerto and cooled air waft through the gray plaid interior of the van as it slides west past the pine trees and cornfields that line Rte. 50. Satisfied pool members recall why they gave up privately operated commuter buses, Metro buses and private cars for the Dodge Ram van.
The commuter bus, they said, broke down frequently, had no air conditioning, and sometimes left them standing in the rain when it was late or the schedule was changed. It rarely had seats for all passengers.
The commuter bus passengers paid "$121 a month, and they (the buses) never came on time, versus $67 for the van pool," said Emory (Bud) Gaddy, a member of Drucker's pool.
Drucker organized the pool and bought the van with 100 percent bank financing; he does the driving. In return, he commutes free. The riders are free to nap, chat or literally look down on those who drive themselves to work.
Lenore Brashears, who works for the Smithsonian Institution, said "Some (drivers) talk to themselves. They look at us like we're crazy. But actually they're the crazy ones."
According to Drucker, the Metrorail trains that run alongside them for most of the ride have reduced traffic on Rte. 50. Yet, since the subway fare increased for the second time in a year last January, many would-be riders along the New Carrollton line are having second thoughts about rapid transit. Metro estimates, based on ridership figures for the nine months that ended last March, that the subway will carry only 78 million passengers during the next year, compared to 83.7 million expected before fare rise.
"I notice there aren't as many people riding," said Larry Forsythe of Annapolis, as he walked with his wife Valerie through the large parking lots at the New Carrollton terminus. "Before, if you weren't at the parking lot at 7:15 in the morning there wasn't a parking space. Now if you park at 8:15 there isn't any problem."
Echoing several current and former Metro riders, Forsythe said the subway is a great way to get downtown, but not at $1.60 each way plus $1 for parking. Forsythe estimated that the couple's total commuting cost at $7.40 per day, exceeded the cost of driving and parking and was 15 minutes slower than the 45-minute drive downtown.
"If it goes up anymore, we'll start driving again," he said.
Prince George's planner Derro estimated that there are 100 to 300 empty spaces in the each of the lots at Cheverly, Landover and New Carrollton every morning -- lots that hold 500, 1,000 and 1,900 cars respectivly.
"In January they hit the riders with one hell of an increase," said Derro. "I think it's taken it's toll. Normally there is a drop-off and then a rise, but this time they didn't come back."
The former transit riders who return to the road will likely join thousands of other commuters trying to get through a few bad intersections in Prince George's and Montgomery.
Until there are state and federal funds to correct problem, thousands of Maryland motorists will have only the advice of airborne traffic spotters such as WTOP's Bob Marburg to console them in the morning.
Marburg, a self-styled "observer of human nature" from several hundred feet up, says it is difficult to steer people around predictable traffic jams because drivers tend to stick to familiar roads and suffer in silence.
"If nothing else, you let them know how far ahead the problem dissipates. They know that the signal ahead is going to take them four or five cycles to get through," said Marburg."A lot of times we're not telling people it is good, we just tell them that it is no worse than usual."