Maryland has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, with motorists suffering the longest average daily commute to work — about 32 minutes, according to the state Department of Transportation.
And by all projections, traffic on major highways such as Interstates 95, 70 and 270 is only expected to get worse over the next 20 years.
To determine what steps need to be taken to help relieve such congestion, the state is the process of updating its 2035 Maryland Transportation Plan, a long-range blueprint that will outline transportation goals and priorities.
“This is a statewide plan,” MDOT Strategic Planning Manager Michael J. Haley said Thursday. “This is a policy guide that helps make up [financial] investment decisions.”
Haley was participating in a workshop being held at the Maryland State Highway Administration offices in Frederick to provide area residents, community leaders, government agencies and elected officials from Frederick County and elsewhere the opportunity to offer suggestions for the state plan.
Over the next several months, the state will hold similar workshops throughout Maryland, Haley said. The plan will be finalized in the fall and released to the public next January,
During the workshop, about 60 participants were divided into groups, where they were asked by state transportation officials to come up with ideas to improve highway congestion, mass transit, safety and the environment. Their suggestions will be considered by state officials for inclusion in the plan.
Frederick city Alderman Karen Young (D) — who was recently elected chairwoman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional planning board that looks at transportation, economics and the environment — suggested that bike paths be installed in communities where people live and work.
“A lot of people say ‘Bike paths are nice things to have, but are not necessary,’” Young said. “I would disagree with that.... We need to move toward anything that gets people out of their cars.”
Young and her group also suggested that government planners encourage housing developments where people live and work.
In Frederick, the new community of Market Square currently under construction off Md. 26 north of Frederick city, is an example of a live-and-work plan, that includes townhouses, restaurants and businesses.
To improve safety on area highways, participants also suggested lowering speed limits through traffic lights and increasing law enforcement. Increased rail and transit options also were suggested.
Frederick city Alderman Shelley Aloi (R) said, in an interview after the workshop, that state highway officials heard their suggestions, but the problem will be finding the money to implement them.
“The biggest thing is the funding strategy,” she said.
Aloi said, though the key to eliminating some of the traffic on I-270 is to bring more jobs to the county, many residents chose to take jobs out of the county, because of higher salaries.
“The key is bringing jobs here,” she said. “But certain people make a choice to go down the road.”
Workshop participant John DiFonzo, an engineer for the city of Cumberland in Allegany County, said they would welcome some of the state’s traffic problems, if it meant more businesses and residents moving to that area.
With a population of 20,859, Cumberland was once the regional business and commercial center for Western Maryland.
But what was once a thriving industrial city in the 1980s, before many of the plants closed their doors and moved elsewhere, is now a small-town community with a population that has continued to decline since 1990.
“All those industrial jobs are gone and we’re left with a nice community,” DiFonzo said. “We’re trying to get people in our area. But we’re still pretty far out [from the metropolitan area]. It would be great to get the jobs and the movement of people.”
DiFonzo said he had less to contribute to the workshop because his city has no traffic congestion but it was important for him to attend.
“We’re all part of the state of Maryland, and it’s really important the state of Maryland does not forget us,” he said.
Despite the intentions, it is unclear whether Thursday’s workshop will do much to improve the traffic congestion projected over the next 20 years.
Resident population and traffic are all expected to increase, according to the state transportation department.
“Maryland’s population in 2010 was over 5.7 million, and it’s projected to increase by one million and produce an additional 600,000 jobs by 2035,” according to a workshop document. “Freight activity is expected to more than double by 2035.”
From 2013 to 2040, Frederick County’s population is expected to increase by 38 percent but its job growth is projected to only increases by 16 percent, according to study released in November by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, a group of elected officials that plans transportation improvements in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
That means that the 110,200 vehicles that currently travel down I-270 transporting county residents to jobs in Montgomery County, Washington D.C., and Virginia, will only increase in number.
Finding the money to expand the state’s highway system, bus transit and freight capacity will be difficult. The SHA currently spends 82 percent of its capital budget just to maintain highways, workshop documents said.
Increasing Maryland’s gas tax of 23.5 cents-per-gallon has been proposed by state lawmakers.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has also proposed adding the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline earlier this year, but the proposal stalled in the legislature.
O’Malley has said it could come up again during the current legislative session, which began Wednesday. The money raised would go to transportation projects statewide.