At 2.5 million strong, Central Maryland’s workforce and its employers provide a hotbed of innovation and commitment.
But to sustain its competitive position, the region must urgently address long-overdue transportation needs.
Take the example of Fort Meade, which houses more than 90 government- and military-related tenants and is also our state’s largest employer. Fort Meade is one of 20 major employment centers in our region. Together, they account for 40 percent of the region’s jobs. They employ more people than our central business districts. Yet, they are often under-served by transportation resources.
Between 2005 and 2011, the Fort Meade workforce grew from 35,000 to 56,000. That’s about three times the size of the Pentagon. Continuing growth is expected as its new U.S. Cyber Command mission gains traction.
The typical Fort Meade worker commutes about 20 miles. More than 60 percent cross at least one jurisdictional boundary to get to work. Although a small number commute to Fort Meade by rail, our regional highways carry 98 percent of Fort Meade-bound personnel, mostly in single-occupant vehicles.
Fort Meade and the region’s growth and competitiveness depend on its ability to get people to work – and home again – safely and efficiently. But our highway system is more than 50 percent over-loaded. Peak period delays resulting from this over-loading are costing our economy $6 billion in lost time annually, and growing.
Regionally, rail plays a small but useful role by handling a portion of peak-hour commuter demand. But rail is also operating at full capacity.
What can we do to improve the situation? Because of our complex commuting patterns, traffic congestion requires a regional solution.
Let’s say we wanted to reduce regional congestion by 85 percent in 10 years. In theory, we have three strategic options to achieve this goal:
- STRATEGY #1 – DO NOTHING. If we do nothing, over-loading will grow. The costs of congestion, delays, and poor service quality will increase as well. Our region will gain a reputation as an unattractive venue for business growth and investment. Innovative employers and federal agencies will locate elsewhere. Our economy will stagnate.
- STRATEGY #2 – BUILD HIGHWAYS. We could achieve our goal to reduce congestion by building some 3,200 miles of highway capacity, at an estimated cost of $50 billion to $60 billion over 25 years. This is the traditional approach. But this option could truly be impossible. We cannot raise fuel taxes by enough to pay the bill. Even if we could, the lack of sufficient right-of-way for either highway or rail would nix this strategy. And in the end, ongoing growth will leave us with highways that are just as congested as they are today.
- STRATEGY #3 – MAKE OUR HIGHWAYS MORE EFFICIENT. We could also achieve our goal using a three-pronged “transportation demand management” (TDM)-driven approach:
- Invest just $7 billion over 10 years in selected highway and rail projects, primarily to improve quality and reliability for multi-occupant travel modes (carpool, van pool, commuter bus, bus rapid transit, rail)
- Encourage employers to use teleworking more extensively (say 2.5 percent of the total workforce), and
- Use public-private partnerships to raise capital funds, operate facilities, and provide services.
Only Strategy #3 actually achieves our 85 percent congestion-reduction goal. Most of the gain from this strategy comes from increasing the number of persons per vehicle during peak periods.
Of our 2.5 million workforce, roughly 100,000 would have to switch from personal vehicles to multi-occupant ones during peak hours. No doubt, many would choose to do so if they had an attractive option. This approach is feasible, and the use of partnerships to raise funds could limit the need for tax money to a fraction of the $7 billion investment.
To address our region’s transportation challenges within a plausible time frame, our only realistic option is to adopt a TDM-driven strategy. The cost would be small compared to our traditional ”drive-alone” approach, and we could all see the improvements in 10 years or less.
Jean Friedberg is the Regional Transportation Coordinator for the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee.
Photo by Fort Meade