Donald Fry — Mobility: the ultimate jobs issue

By Donald C. Fry

Fresh data released last week by the highly-regarded Texas Transportation Institute underscores the effect of Maryland’s transportation infrastructure funding crisis on highway commuters in the state.

The institute’s new report ranks the Washington, D.C. region, including its Maryland suburbs, as the nation’s most congested region for auto commuters. The Baltimore region ranks as the sixth most congested region in the nation and is afflicted with the worst highway commuter congestion among all urban areas with population of 3 million or less, according to the report.

Meanwhile, a story this week in the Baltimore Sun highlighted the plights of commuters who don’t have a car and must face, on a daily basis, the challenges posed by the Baltimore region’s fragmented transit system.

Vehicles for Change, whose formation 12 years ago was prompted by the region’s transit shortcomings, recently held a “walk in their shoes” event where some of the organization’s low-income clients, who had obtained donated used cars through the nonprofit group, took reporters and lawmakers on the transit commutes that recipients had endured before they got their cars.

You can imagine the experience, which included buses that were late and tales from riders of two-hour waits for a bus, others who gave up and walked miles to their destinations, and others whose former commutes involved several transfers between convoluted, and time-consuming transit routes.

I doubt that anyone in Baltimore or Maryland is surprised by any of this. Highways in Maryland have ranked among the nation’s most congested for more than five years. And the Baltimore metro area has been in need of a genuine, integrated mass transit system for more than four decades during which policy makers and transit planners cobbled together a hodge-podge of bus routes and two north-south transit lines – one heavy rail and one light rail – that don’t connect with each other.

We’re still anxiously awaiting the Red Line – the proposed east-west light rail transit system that would finally connect with north-south rail transit lines and give Baltimore commuters a comprehensive, efficient alternative to driving.

But policy makers in Washington and Annapolis should pay attention to a couple of important points emphasized by the Texas Transportation Institute and by the recent coverage of the work of Vehicles for Change.

First, “too little progress is being made toward ensuring that the nation’s transportation system will be able to keep up with job growth that could occur when the recession ends,” warns the Texas Transportation Institute report.

“Congestion does more than choke our highways. It chokes our economy, making it harder to buy what we need and harder to keep or find a job. That’s a bad thing, especially when our economic recovery is so fragile,” writes Tim Lomax, one of the authors of the TTI study.

Second, surveys by Vehicles for Change show that 70 percent of its car recipients experience significant income increases within a year of receiving a car and gaining reliable, efficient transportation, reports Marty Schwartz, the organization’s president.

This is more compelling evidence that funding transportation infrastructure isn’t an issue that should be habitually shoved to the back burner by lawmakers who have other “more pressing” things on their agendas or are simply fearful of losing their elected posts.

It’s not just about paying for expensive infrastructure. It’s about doing the right thing to create jobs and economic growth. All economic growth and job creation starts with individuals being able to get to and from work efficiently.

Mobility is ultimately a jobs issue.

That’s a reality that lawmakers, most of whom say their top priority is “jobs, jobs, jobs,’ need to consider when the topic of transportation funding comes before them in Washington and Annapolis.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Tech jobs are here, more are coming, but can we fill them?

Breaking free of transportation funding limbo in D.C. and Annapolis

The Grand Prix’s lessons

Maryland jobs data show July gains, sobering long-term reality

Quake serves as reminder about transportation

Maryland funding for DBED lags behind competing states

Opportunity for Baltimore looms from Panama

Disconnect remains between business advocates, lawmakers over incentives

Tax structure, regulatory environment frame Maryland’s business cost challenges