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Go Maryland, Go!

Jul 15, 2014 05:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Lisa Nolan

Getting from “here to there” may not be quite as challenging in the future given some of the proposed improvements and expansions in the area’s transportation systems.

Summer. Route 50 traffic. Weekends. Trips that take hours—and shouldn’t. We’ve all experienced it. Overcrowded roads, lack of parking at public transportation facilities, and limited mass transit options create a taxing situation for commuters in the tri-city area. However, that could change. Innovative technologies and new apps that add capacity—and options—to the local and regional transportation scene are on the horizon.

Regional transportation offerings include everything from mass transit services like METRO and MARC, to rideshare and van pool services, and even a pedestrian and bicycle network. But, the preferred method of getting around is the highway. “When talking about transportation in the area, the automobile is king,” says George Cardwell, Anne Arundel County transportation planning administrator.

In the short term, there are new highway projects focused on the most-used corridors in the county, with the biggest ones happening around Fort Meade. Amongst other things, the state is widening Route 175 in five-mile increments from Odenton to Jessup, adding a new interchange at BWI Parkway, and funding a study at Route 198 to widen the road to four lanes.

Things are slowly changing. “Over the last few years, there’s been about a 4 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled in the county,” Cardwell says. Fuel prices and the cost of car ownership are key reasons but beyond that, public transportation saves energy, reduces traffic, and helps the environment. That’s why, increasingly, the major initiatives in the area are geared toward expanding the regional transportation system for the masses.

Many of those initiatives focus on bus rapid transit. Short-term projects involve adding new bus routes and increasing capacity at park and ride lots. Other developments under consideration include creating “bus only” HOV lanes and using reversible medians—on Route 50 for example—to improve traffic flow during rush hours. The state may also consider using technology to make buses more efficient—like a traffic light sensor that can detect an approaching bus and stay green until the bus passes through.

The biggest news for bus service in the area is creation of the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Central Maryland which could involve the cities of Annapolis and Laurel, and the counties of Anne Arundel, Howard, and Prince George’s. The goal of the RTA is to streamline funding, cut out additional layers of management, and better compete for federal and state funding. With a proposed start date of July 1st, the RTA could potentially pave the way for more and better bus services.

POD Cars to the Rescue?

David Humphreys, Executive Director at Annapolis Regional Transportation Management Association (ARTMA) is excited about some progressive initiatives—self-driven, or autonomous, vehicles. “We are thinking about the next generation of technologically advanced transit,” Humphreys says.

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An artist rendering of an urban public rapid transit system that uses POD cars to quickly and unobtrusively commute passengers. 

Currently, ARTMA, the city of Annapolis, and Fort Meade are evaluating Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), or POD cars, a new public transportation system designed for travel in congested areas. The team is working on a request for proposal to create a demonstration site at Fort Meade or Annapolis, or perhaps linking the two areas together. “The technology is here and we’d like to create a public/private partnership to evaluate how it can work for us,” Humphreys explains. While it won’t happen tomorrow, the group envisions a time when POD cars would operate via overhead system with unobtrusive support towers that would not require traditional stations—only a platform so that the POD could descend to pick-up and discharge transit passengers. “It’s a very compelling option for crowded areas,” he notes.

METRO Has Momentum

METRO’s vision for the future is detailed in Momentum, a strategic plan that calls for “Metro 2025” initiatives—from eight-car trains to bus-only lanes—that should bring dramatic improvements to area commuters. “Metrorail and Metrobus are overcrowded and Maryland residents feel it every day,” says Shyam Kannan, Managing Director, Planning at METRO. For Maryland residents, the key elements of the plan call for increased capacity throughout the system by adding trains and buses as well as using eight-car metro rail cars during peak commuting times, improvements at core metro stations, and a Metrobus Priority Corridor Network (PCN).

Perhaps the most talked about initiative is the addition of an east-west “Purple Line” connecting New Carrollton in Prince George’s County to Bethesda in Montgomery County. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Purple Line would: “connect the major central business districts and activity centers of Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma/Langley Park, College Park/University of Maryland, and New Carrollton; connect to all three MARC lines, Amtrak, and local bus routes; provide 21 conveniently located stations; include a hiker/biker trail along the Georgetown Branch between Bethesda and Silver Spring; and improve east-west mobility, and reduce travel times for thousands of area residents.”

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The proposed METRO Purple Line would connect New Carrollton in Prince George’s County to Bethesda in Montgomery County.

The impact could be significant. By taking thousands of cars off the road and improving transit, Kannan confirms that, altogether, Metro 2025 will save time for both Maryland transit riders and drivers. “By 2025, these improvements will take almost 20,000 cars off Maryland roads every day,” he notes. “Other aspects of the plan let buses move faster and Metrorail riders move faster through the system because of less station congestion and will save Maryland residents’ time, worth $66 million per year.”

MARC, Set, Go

The Maryland Rail Commuter Service, or MARC, is a major player in the regional transit scene. For the greater Annapolis area, most of the MARC service comes in the form of commuter buses. John Hovatter, Director of MARC Train and Commuter Bus Services, notes that, “Commuter buses are very nimble, while rail is not. Bus service can be adjusted at any time.” In this area, MARC is looking to add new buses to take advantage of the increased parking capacity at local lots by as early as this summer.
Image title And while plans do not include adding new rail lines because of the cost—which would be in the billions—MARC is planning on extending its regional rail service by adding new trains and connections. “Our biggest growth initiative for the next 5–10 years is to provide connecting services so that MARC is a main line and everyone feeds into it,” Hovatter says.

Maryland Rail Commuter Service’s (MARC) five to ten year plan calls for extending connections to main lines of service.

The Sky’s the Limit

While most residents don’t commute via airplane, Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall (BWI) Airport plays an important role in the regional transit picture. The airport is undergoing a major expansion due to the tremendous growth of its international traffic. “For the second straight year, international passenger traffic at the Airport grew about 20 percent and the number of international passengers using BWI Marshall has nearly doubled over the past five years,” says Jonathan Deen, spokesperson for BWI Marshall.

Later this year, the airport is scheduled to move forward with the design of the D/E Connector and Security Checkpoint Program, intended to handle the increase in passengers. The multi-phase development will offer improved service for passengers as well as supporting further international growth. The D/E program will create a new security checkpoint to serve domestic and international travelers, construct a new secure connector between Concourse D and Concourse E, and configure airline gates to support additional international flights.

There’s an App for That

New, non-traditional services are creating options for residents. Car sharing companies like Zip Car let drivers rent cars by the hour or day, essentially providing access to transportation without requiring car ownership. Originally targeted toward individuals, Zip Car has expanded to include small businesses. In a slight twist on that model, another company, RelayRides, lets private car owners rent out their vehicles to other individuals.

And a new breed of apps has created a number of smartphone-based taxi services. A popular one, Uber, allows consumers to bypass cab companies by using an app to schedule rides. Uber lets riders choose the type of transportation they want—from basic cars to SUVs to luxury automobiles for a special night out—all for slightly more than the cost of a cab. The company’s website says that it carefully selects the drivers it works with and ensures that they have proper licensing and insurance. And it uses a customer generated rating system to evaluate driver quality: too many low ratings and no more business. Another app, SideCar, is similar to Uber but instead of having professional drivers, it’s a ride-sharing service that—for a fee—connects people who own cars with passengers heading the same way.

With congestion in the area predicated to increase, these new apps and other innovations are key for local resident’s sanity. There’s even chatter about the remote possibility of Japan’s “Super-Maglev” train technology coming state-side. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently proposed a Japan/U.S. partnership to build a rail line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. as a demonstration of transportation technology that could make the 37-mile commute just a short 15-minute ride. Even a Maglev line from D.C. to Boston is eyed for the distant future.

So, next time you are stuck in traffic or packed sardine-like into a Metrobus, try to envision cruising down the highway in an autonomous vehicle, riding high in a POD, or snaking along a smooth-as-a-silver-bullet rail line and hope that the future of transportation will be here before we know it.