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December 31, 2009

MTA modifies bus routes due to snow

The Maryland Transit Administration is keeping its bus routes rolling, but in many cases, it has modified routes as a concession to the snow. Here's the damages, straight from the MTA:

10:00am latest update:

MARC Train is operating on S schedule and experiencing 10-20 minute delays.
Metro and Light Rail are on schedule.

The following diversions are posted on the website.  A link was put on the Special Announcements section.
No. 1 Terminates at Mondawmin.
No. 5 Bus by-passing Park ave.
No. 9  Bus terminate at  Ridgley and Cranbrook.
No. 13 Bus by-passing Edgewood, staying on Dennison.
No. 15 Bus terminates at Walbrook Junction. West bound left at Guildford, right at Fayette, right at Park, left at Saratoga. Will service White Marsh Mall.
No. 16 Bus by-passing Violet Ville and Brooklyn area.
No. 20 Bus is by-passing St. Agnes Hospital, and Culver and Monastery
No. 22 Bus terminates at Eastern &  Ponca – bypass Bay view.
No. 23 Bus  by-passing Wildwood Parkway
No. 23 and 40 use Lombard to Ponca to Eastern in both directions.
Nos. 27, 29, and 51 Buses are staying on Cherry Hill Road
Nos. 10, 35, 33 and 27 pulled off the street.
No. 36 Bus  by-passing Argonne Drive, staying on the Alameda
No. 40 WB will terminate at Edmondson Village, not servicing Rt 40 & Rolling Rd.
No. 44 Bus WB from Rosedale will terminate at Northern Parkway @ York.  EB from Security will terminate at Sinai.
***All services will by-pass the Bay view Medical Center***


Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:47 AM | | Comments (1)

Free taxis offered for holiday revelers

Sun photo/Jed Kirschbaum     

One of the puzzling questions surrounding the whole issue of drunk driving is why more people who indulge in alcohol don't invest in the cost of a taxi to get themselves home. Even if it's a $50 or $60 ride, it's sure a lot cheaper than the costs of hiring a lawyer, paying a fine, mandatory alcohol education programs and all the other costs associated with a DUI bust.

This New Year's Day weekend, AAA Mid-Atlantic, Yellow Cab and the State Highway Administration are leaving Baltimore revelers  no excuse for failing to take a taxi after celebratiing at a local watering hole. They're offering free taxi rides, up to a total of $50, to drinkers in Baltimore. (Passengers pay any balance over $50.)

The Tipsy? Taxi! program will be available on New Year’s Eve, New Year's Day and Saturday, Jan. 2,  from midnight to 4:00 am. Rider must be at least 21 and have been  drinking at a restaurant or bar in the city. Call 1-877-963-TAXI  to schedule a taxi ride.

Some 110 wise imbibers took advantage of the program last New Year's Day weekend. The program, which is offered during the holiday weekends most associated with alcohol consumption, has provided an estimated 1,500 rides  since it was first introduced. This year the program will be offered on St. Patrick's Day, the Fourth of July and Halloween.

Now if we could just add Cinco de Mayo and the Preakness.



Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: On the roads

Toll authority makes amends



 Sun photo/2003         

The plea came from reader Gloria Kukan of New Jersey in Dec. 10, just as I was about to decamp on a weeklong vacation, so this inquiry couldn't be answered quickly. Fortunately, it has a happy ending, courtesy of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Here's the story:

I was told about your column “Getting There” and that you often write of the MdTA. I have a problem that I’m not sure how to progress with and hope that you may have some insight with.

My issue involves the EZ Pass toll plaza at the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Maryland. While returning to NJ from business trip on 08 Oct 2009, I had to pass through this plaza. Since I am reimbursed for all tolls I pay by my company, I need to provide receipts thereby requiring the use of “Cash” only lanes

 At this particular toll plaza, during rush hour traffic, the only 2 cash lanes began backing up greatly. Then one lane went from the red ‘x’ to a green light. I looked to make sure this was green and indicated “Cash” which it did. So I and a number of cars moved to this lane. A pick-up truck in front of me puts his hand out the window to pay, motions in disgust, then takes off. As I moved in with my hand and money out the window to pay, I discovered why; the booth was closed.

There was no recourse; i.e. envelope, or a safe way to pull over into the plaza operations center to tell them.

Subsequently, I received a ‘toll violation’. I appealed it, sent the EZ Pass MD the $2 for the toll with a letter explaining that this misleading since the light was green. I sent a letter to the Governor of Maryland, the Maryland Ethics Committee, and the Director of Internal Audits for Maryland’s Transportation Authority for EZ Pass asking them to examine this incident.

I received yet another fine for $25 and another for $3 for a ‘administrative fee’. Upon writing an appeal for these fines, I’ve discovered that EZ Pass has 15 minute delay built into the system for opening, closing, and changing the method of payment, for electronic lanes. They are called “switch” lanes. While the overhead sign, which indicates what method of payment is accept, may read “Cash” (and have the correct green light) the booth itself to pay may be EZ Pass or closed altogether.

Sir, I am looking for whatever help you can provide regarding this practice. I never knew about this delay and am my wits end trying to appeal. It’s very frustrating to know that while I verified what lane to go into, making sure that it was cash to obtain a receipt, only to find out it wasn’t, is upsetting since I intended to pay the toll anyway.

Have you in your experiences come across this? Who else can I contact about getting this resolved?

I thank you for taking the time to read this and appreciate any advice and direction you can provide me in this matter. Please let me know if you require any more information.

I didn't have any experience with such a lapse, but I do know how  to get an answer from the authority. Here's the answer, from authority spokeswoman Teri Moss:

You inquired as to how the customer can appeal her penalty and get a response.   

Upon receipt of a letter dated Nov. 21, our E-ZPass staff began researching the logs and images associated with toll lane 4 of the Fort McHenry for the evening of October 8.   It appears there was confusion on the part of motorists intending to pay cash in this lane.  Between 5:25 and 5:40 p.m., 49 transactions were processed in that lane resulting in 40 E-ZPass transactions and nine toll violations. 

We are unable to verify whether the overhead canopy signage displayed the correct lane status.  However, due to this complaint and our research, and in the best interest of the customer, we will be waiving and refunding any tolls and fees that were paid by the motorists identified as violators during that time.

Thank you for bringing her concerns to our attention as a follow up to her inquiry.  Know that customer service is a priority and we take actions to address concerns as appropriate.   We apologize this commitment was not conveyed to your reader.

Her appeal has been addressed and we will be sending her and other customers who encountered the same issue a letter advising our findings and their refund if any tolls or fees were paid.

As for Kukan's question about the right way to appeal decisions by the authority, she made some good moves and some not-so-good moves. Tracking down the authority's audits director was pretty clever, but writing the State Ethics Commission is  spinning your wheels. It doesn't handle such matters. Moss suggested that customers take the following steps to appeal a toll action:

1 – When the customer receives the violation notice and would like to appeal, they should fill in the appeal form that is included in their violation notice, with any supporting documentation, and send it to the address listed. 

2 – They will receive a response letter stating whether their appeal was granted or denied. The letter will contain the next step for further appeal.  The next step if not satisfied with the response, is to send the next appeal in writing to the MDTA’s E-ZPass Violations Program Manager. (see attached Doc 25)

3 – If the second request is denied and the customer is still not satisfied with the outcome, they should send a letter with all supporting documents to the E-ZPass Administrator at the same address. 

And, of course, if those avenues of appeal don't work, you can write Getting There at



Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Maryland toll facilities

December 30, 2009

Blog calls out councilwoman on ICC toll stance

The Greater Greater Washington blog is calling out Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen on her opposition to the toll plan the Maryland Transportation Authority adopted for the Intercouncty Connector.

GGW writer  David Alpert notes that Floreen is a longtime supporter of the ICC who has known for years that the highway was being built as a toll road and that the rates were unlikely to be cheap. Alpert points out that Montgomery elected officials ans wannabes are lusting over statewide revenue sources to keep their rides on the ICC cheap or even free.

To some extent, this is all just posturing for the home folks. But Baltimore resiidents need to keep a wary eye on these Montgomery folks lest they start getting some traction for their diversionary schemes.

Whether you support the ICC or oppose  it (and I'll stay neutral), it was never intended to be an inexpensive road. Nor was it ever planned that it would have to be supported by sales taxes, slots revenue or higher tolls than are already being paid at existing toll facilities.

Alpert astutely points out that the cycle of demanding a road then complaining about its cost is beginning anew with the proposed widening of Interstate 270. Make no mistake, the cost of express toll lanes on I-270 would make the ICC tolls look like chump change.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

Price of a bicyclist's life? $313

The Baltimore Spokes blog reports on the trial of a St. Mary's County motorist who struck and killed a bicyclist she didn't see because she was driving with a partially fogged-up windshield  while searching for a cigarette lighter.

Found guilty of negligent driving, she was  fined $313 including court costs. The judge refused her request that hew lower the fine.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:17 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Bicycles

December 28, 2009

MTA rider finds roaches in her coaches

Reader Deborah O'Sullivan had a problem with the Maryland Transit Administration that was really bugging her, so she turned to Getting There for help. She wrote:

I noticed that you did a story on the appointment of Ralign T. Wells as the new MTA administrator.  In the interest of the hundreds of us who ride the MTA 120 Bus out of White Marsh, I am requesting your help and maybe you could let Mr. Wells know that the bus line is infested with roaches.  The roaches crawl all over the windows and onto the riders, making for an extremely traumatic ride to and from work.  These conditions are unhealthy and disgusting. 
                                                                                      Photo by Clipart Graphics

I am an M&T Bank employee and work at 25 S. Charles Street, in the corporate headquarters building.  The process of de-bugging myself and my clothing when I get to work is horrifying and humiliating.  We have alerted the MTA but have not received any satisfaction.

MTA spokeswoman Cheron Victoria Wicker passed along this reply:

Each day before Local Buses are placed into service MTA’s operations staff thoroughly clean and inspect the vehicles. This includes the application of pesticides to control insects. We have recently increased the frequency of spraying, and every bus was treated over the past several weeks. This should address any issues with insects, but we welcome reports from riders if they experience otherwise. Our goal is to develop an effective extermination program while adhering to OSHA and EPA regulations that govern the use of insecticides and protect public health. We also need cooperation from our customers. It is against the law to eat and drink on an MTA bus or train, and although we have signs posted throughout the system we often find food left behind which attracts insects.

Wicker added that the MTA has specifically checked conditions on Route #120 and  has taken measures to deal with the vermin. She suggested that riders who have comments, questions, compliments or complaints deliver them through the MTA’s website. She said each is read and referred to the appropriate department.

I appreciate Wicker's suggestion, but the MTA could do a lot better job of designing its web site to make it easier to give feedback. Then there's the fact that many of its riders don't have computers. It's a tough challenge dealing with riders who insist on eating donuts on the bus, but the agency needs to do a better job of welcoming and responding to customer complaints.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Local bus lines

December 24, 2009

Why MARC doesn't allow most bikes

There was a lot of discussion on the Getting There blog last week about MARC and bicycles, with some readers questioning why the Maryland Transit Administration isn't more open to bringing the two-wheelers on board. I suggested that bringing bicycles aboard the trains could pose a safety hazard. Now we're getting the official version from Henry M. Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and engineering (at right in 2005 Sun photo).

Here's his explanation of MTA's policy:

When MTA tuned up its bike policies a decade ago we took a close look at MARC with the idea of making it as bike-friendly as Light Rail and Metro (since then the buses were also equipped with racks).  Commuter railroads are very diverse in terms of their ridership, equipment, stations and operating environments so what might work on one system won’t work on another.  As you correctly identify, our challenge is crowding on peak period trains and the safety issues associated with unsecured and protruding objects.  The Penn Line in particular is the fastest commuter railroad in the nation so strict safety standards are in place.


Our solution was a vertical bike rack mounted to the side of each passenger coach.  The bike storage area would be separated from the rest of the car by a partition.  Our design was tested at the Federal Railroad Administration’s facility in Colorado.  However, since it would have meant the loss of two rows of seats in each car we ultimately decided not to proceed.  Adding a dedicated car for bikes is not an option for us because we are short on mid-day and overnight storage space.  Under our current policy you can bring a bike on board if it can be folded and stowed out of the aisle.  Otherwise, we have racks and lockers available at many stations.  We are installing more when we receive requests.  Here’s a link to a comprehensive description of our policies:

From what I know of MARC's capacity issues, taking space away from passengers to provide secure bike storage would provoke a commuter revolt. I'm going with the MTA on this one.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: MARC train

December 23, 2009

Dreading the trip north on 95? There's another way

Are you planning to head home to the Northeast to the holidays on Christmas Eve? Are you dreading the slog up Interstate 95, with all the tolls and bottlenecks and congestion and the ever-present threat of a tractor-trailer mishap turning the highway into a parking lot?

There may be a better way.

According to the National Weather Service, driving conditions will be clear and bright tomorrow through central and eastern Pennsylvania. That makes the Getting There Northeast Passage a viable option for holiday travel to northern New Jersey, Westchester County, N.Y., the Hudson River Valley and much of New England.

The Northeast Passage, described in a November 2006 Getting There column and subsequently refined in November 2007, avoids such I-95 hassles as the Delaware Toll Plaza and the New Jersey Turnpike by taking the traveler up Interstate 83 to York, Pa., then cutting over on U.S. 30 to Lancaster and up U.S. 222 to the far side of Reading on what are mostly interstate-quality highways. From Reading one pproceeds on U.S. 222 to one of several cutoffs (bypassing Allentown traffic) to link up with Interstate 78. I-78 generally offers a congestion-free ride to the strategic junction with Interstate 287 in New Jersey on the fringe of metro New York. From that point the traveler can head eat toward Newark, north toward New England or south toward New Brunswick, N.J.

On the northbound trip there are no tolls to that point. On I-95 you'll be paying big-time for the privilege of going 20 mph.

From what I  could tell, the forecast for a Sunday return trip looks good too. It's a good idea to watch the weather around Allentown and Reading closely. I wouldn't advise driving into the teeth of a snowstorm.

One caveat: Some travelers have decided it would be wise to stay on Interstate 83 to Harrisburg and pick up Interstate 81. Bad move. North of York, I-83 drifts too far west -- miles you just have to make up heading back east. And then there's the likelihood of backups around Harrisburg and on I-81. The non-interstate 30/222 route is straighter and faster.

And read carefully the parts of the 2007 column dealing with York and Allentown. Both tweaks could save you 10 minutes or more.

Have a Merry and I-95-free Christmas!

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: On the roads

BWI update: busy but moving briskly

Here's the day-before-the-day update from Jonathan Dean, spokesman supreme for BWI Marshall Airport:

At BWI, it's a beehive of activity, with customers coming and going for the holiday.
It's busy, but the airline ticketing and the security checkpoints are moving well.  There aren't any long lines at this point.

The Washington Metro system has added service on its B30 / BWI Express Metrobus line for the holiday.  See this link for details--

BWI is providing complimentary Wi-Fi for those customers traveling with laptops this holiday.  It's a holiday gift from BWI to make connecting with family and friends while traveling a little easier.

BWI expects an up-tick in business for the holiday.  While I don't have any specific data, passenger traffic has been on the rise at BWI since the spring months.  We expect that growth trend to continue for the holiday season.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:15 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Air travel

Bus service affected by water main break

This just in from the Maryland Transit Administration:

Service on Fayette Street & Charles Street is diverted due to a water main break:

Bus Nos. #5, #6, #8,  #20, #23, #36, #40, #48 Quick Bus, and #91 will make the following diversions:

Regular route on Fayette Street to St. Paul Street then:
Left on St. Paul Street
Right on Lombard Street
Right on Charles Street
Left on  Fayette Street 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:08 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Local bus lines

Power restored on Northeast Corridor

The AP is reporting that power has been restored after a three-hour interruption on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. The outage had affected traffic between New York and Washington.
Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads

Slots for a toll-free ICC? Brilliant!

The Maryland Transportation Authority has taken appropriate action on the toll structure for the Intercounty Connector, but some of our friends down in Montgomery County are still whining that they want the governor of the General Assembly to intervene so users of the ICC doen't have to pay as much.

Never mind that such an intervention would trash the authority's bond rating and increase the state's cost of borrowing. It's all about Montgomery.

One of the more amusing suggestions for transferring the costs of the ICC from its users to resiidents of Baltimore and other parts of the state comes from long-ago delegate, notorious loudmouth and perennial political wannabe Robin Ficker. On the Maryland Politics Watch blog, he writes: "There is no reason why we can't use a penny of the sales tax and some of the slots money to pay for a toll-free ICC."

Fascinating. So Ficker wants to transfer money from the sales tax -- which is paid by people all over the state to fund education, health, transportation and other vital programs -- to make the ICC less costly for its affluent customer base. Then he wants to tap slots revenue -- all generated at casinos in other people's backyards -- to get it all the way to FREE.

It seems to me that if historically slots-averse Montgomery wants to tap slots revenue to subsidize its $2.6 billion Highway to Heaven, it ought to at least welcome a mega-casino somewhere around the western end of the ICC -- maybe Rockville or Gaithersburg. And how about a discrete, elegant little slots parlor for the convenience of those folks in exclusive Potomac?

I wouldn't take this woe-is-me prattle from Montgomery  too seriously, but as  long as ideas like that are bouncing around the county, Baltimore residents should keep a wary eye on developments to the southwest.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:49 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: On the roads

Top 10 Md. transportation stories: 2000-2009

Apart from disasters, transportation stories tend to unfold over the course of many years. Some of the ones that garner big headlines at the time will be all but forgotten in a few years time. So in choosing the Top 10 Maryland transportation stories of the past decade, it helps to project forward to 2020 or 2030 and look back at what made a lasting difference.

A little disclosure is in order. I have covered transportation for The Sun since 2004 and before that followed many transportation-related stories as a State House Bureau reporter. So there might be a bias in favor of the stories I covered. (Thanks to my colleague Scott Calvert to reminding me of the Howard Street Tunnel fire, which occurred before my time on the beat.)

With those caveats, I present my top 10 in the bottom-to-top format made wildly popular by David Letterman:

10. Light rail double-tracking project completed. When Baltimore's light rail system opened early in the 1990s, it soon became clear that the system had been built on the cheap. The decision to run trains on a single track over long stretches led to constant delays and operational difficulties. Thus, under the Glendening administration, the decision was made to add a second track. The Ehrlich administration then made a tough decision to expedite the work by closing down the southern and northern stretches of the system for periods of about a year. It was a rough time for light rail users, but the project was finally completed in early 2006, and the result has been much more reliable service on this still image-impaired system.


                                                                                                 Sun photo/Amy Davis/2006      

                                                                                   Sun photo/Robert Hamilton/2004

Emergency responders at fatal crash in Gamber, Carroll County.

9. Highway deaths continue to take toll. If 600 people had died in a single transportation disaster in Maryland, there's no question it would be No. 1 on this list. But the continuing carnage on state highways dribbles in at the rate of a story or two a day -- usually brief items of three paragraphs or less. Each year of this decade, the toll has hovered around 600 a year. By the time the final totals are talllied, more than 6,000 people -- twice the number killed on 9/11 -- will have died on state roads. One ray of hope: The number in 2008 dropped below 600. And it could go even lower this year.

8. State struggles to fund transportation as gas tax stays put. The state's Transportation Trust Fund revenue continues to lag far behind the demand for projects as politics keeps the gas tax stuck at the early-1990s level of 23.5 percent a gallon. Both the Ehrlich administration (2004) and the O'Malley administration (2007) pushed through large revenue measures but both looked to other sources for funds. For Ehrlich, it was registration fees; for O'Malley, titling taxes and the sales tax. But neither package raised enough money the withstand the current recession.


Photo by Jerry Neblett/2004      

7.  Water taxi capsizes in Baltimore Harbor. The most heart-wrenching Maryland transportation story of the decade was one that brought the city national attention. Five people were killed -- and a little girl permanently disabled -- when a seemingly routine water taxi trip from Fort McHenry to Fells Point aboard the Lady D turned into a nightmare when a powerful squall struck the heavily loaded pontoon craft on March 6, 2004. It took a heroic rescue effort to keep the toll from going higher.


                                                                   Sun photo/Karl Merton Ferron/2002

6. Wheels fall off MTA buses. From August 2001 until June 2002, wheels fell of 18 MTA buses, leading to 54 injury claims and the ouster of the agency's acting administrator. The problems in the MTA's bus maintenance operation cast a cloud over the agency's image that lingers despite the fact there has not been a recurrence in many years. Will that change now that the MTA is moving in the direction of a fleet entirely made up of diesel-electric hybrids that are cleaner and more reliable?


                                                                                                             Sun photo/Barbara Haddock-Taylor       

Governor Martin O'Malley, with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings,  announces decision on Red Line.   

5. Red Line, Purple Line advance. Proposed transit lines in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs advance through the arduous process of public hearings and planning  to the point where Gov. Martin O'Malley could choose a specific mode (light rail) and route for the two projects in 2009. The choices were controversial -- especially in the case of Baltimore's Red Line -- but the decision on whether the projects will be approved is now in the hands of the federal goverment.

                                                                                                                                                   Sun photo/2008       






4. Bay Bridge truck crash uncovers structural flaws. If the decade brought  a single photographic image of transportation in Maryland that will linger in people's minds, it is that of a tractor-trailer being pulled from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay after it crashed through the barriers on the eastbound span and went over the side, killing its driver. An inspection after the August 2008 crash revealed corrosion of the metal devices that attach the barriers to the deck -- forcing emergency repairs that tied up traffic on the bridge for weeks. The work was completed earlier than originally estimated, but no repairs could change the fact we will never cross the bridge wiith the same confidence we had before the crash.



Wahington Post photo/2008            

3. New  Woodrow Wilson Bridge opens. After decades of talk about the need to replace the obsolete and deteriorating bridge that carried the Capital Beltway over the Potomac River from Oxon Hill to Alexandria, Va., preliminary construction work finally got under way in 2000. The first span of the new bridge opened in 2006, clearing the way for the demolition of the  old bridge later that year and construction of the second span, which opened in 2008. And it was done on time and within its budget.


                                                                                                 Sun photo/Lloyd Fox/2006       
    Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at groundbreaking of Intercounty Connector.

2. Intercounty Connector approved; construction begins. After almost a half-century of wrangling between highway advocates and environmentalists, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fulfilled a campaign promise in 2006 by winning federal approval of the ICC -- an 18-mile toll road connecting Interstate 95 wiith the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County. When a lawsuit seeking to block the highway fails in federal court in 2007, the game is over. Construction is now well under way. The irony factor: When the first segment of the ICC opens in October 2010, the man who gets to cut the ribbon will presumably be Ehrlich's arch-rival, O'Malley.

1. Derailment, fire close Howard Street Tunnel.

 When a CSX freight train carrrying hazardous chemicals derailed in the century-old Howard Street Tunnel on July 18, 2001, the resulting underground fire and water main break closed down much of downtown for almost a week and brought East Coast freight traffic to a halt. For many Baltimoreans it was the first they'd heard of  the tunnel, but it was a reminder to the industry and national transportation officials that Baltimore is a dangerous bottleneck in the nation's freight rail system. Amazingly, no one was injured in what could have been a serious disaster. Two months later, four jetliners were hijacked on 9/11 and the memories of the Howard Street debacle quickly receded. As the decade ends, little progress has been made toward replacing the tunnel.






Sun photo/2001

Obviously a lot of stories didn't make the final cut. They included the Interstate 95 express toll lane project, the poorly  received Greater Balltimore Bus Initiative, the decision to move to a hybrid bus fleet, the botched repaving of the Bay Bridge, the introduction of speed cameras  and the continuing growth of congestion in the region. And then there were the ones that readers will recall that I did not.

Readers of this blog should consider this list a draft. Make a good case that something else should be in the Top 10 and you might see it there in the final version.







Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:33 AM | | Comments (7)

December 22, 2009

Md. cost of weekend snow removal: $26.9 million

Last weekend’s record December snowfall cost the Maryland Department of Transportation a budget-busting $26.9 million for snow removal, Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said Tuesday. The storm, which dumped an estimated 16-26 inches on various parts of the state, required a massive and expensive response by all of the transportation department’s operating agencies – from the State Highway Administration to the Motor Vehicle Administration.

The largest share was accounted for by the highway agency, with $20 million in costs. After several earlier snowfalls, the SHA’s spending on snow removal has reached $27 million this season -- exceeding its budget of $26 million with more than two months of winter to go, according to MDOT. Snow removal at BWI Marshall Airport cost $2.7 million, while the Maryland Transit Administration spent $2.3 million to keep its buses and transit lines rolling. The Maryland Transportation Authority spent $1.1 million to clear thhe state’s toll facilities, while it cost the port of Baltimore $533,000 to keep its terminals operating..

"Combating a storm like the one Maryland faced this weekend is a necessary but expensive proposition," Swaim-Staley said. "Agency administrators understand that they will have to make adjustments in other areas of their operating budgets to cover any overage of their annual snow removal budget."

Authority gets it right on ICC tolls

While I was on vacation last week, the Maryland Transportation Authority took a vote on the toll structure for the Intercounty Connector. Not only did the board do right by the Baltimore region by brushing aside howls from Montgomery County that the tolls would be too high, the nine-member body made some wise improvements to the original plan.

By approving peak rates as high as 35 cents a mile, the board did its best too make sure that ICC users pay as  much of the cost of building the highway as possible. Giving them a break, as demanded by the Montgomery County Council and other elected officials, would have created a shortfall that likely would have had to be made up for with toll increases at bridges, tunnels and highways that are heavily used by Baltimore-area residents.

The authority corrected one of the glaring flaws in the original plan by adopting an overnight rate as low as 10 cents a mile. The original, two-tiered plan had made no distinction between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. The modified plan will encourage even low-income drivers to use the ICC rather than local roads between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Proving that the hearings were not a hollow exercise, the board also approved a change giving a break to motorcycles with sidecars. That  comes straight out of the testimony of one motorcyclist who showed up at the hearing in Beltsville.

Of course, the wisdom of the authority's actions were lost on elected officials such as Montgomery County Council Chairman Phil Andrews, who dashed off a letter asking Gov. Martin O'Malley to intervene to prevent the toll plan from going into effect.

What Andrews ignores is that gubernatorial intervention in a toll decision would be a highly irresponsible act that would threaten the authority's sterling bond rating. Andrews is one of the smartest elected officials in Maryland, and one who fully understands the importance of borrowing at the lowest possible rates, so his letter can be written off as mere posturing for the home folks.

Also jumping on the phony outrage badwagon is my good friend Adam Pagnucco of Marylland Politics Watch, who completely misses the point in his recent ICC rant. Pagnucco portrays the toll projections from the 2006 environmental impact statement as if they were a guarantee to the future users of the ICC. Sorry, that's not true. Those numbers were mere guesses, and those of us who were following the debate knew that.

Pagnucco repeats the mantra of the Montgomery elected officials that nobody will pay the toll rates approved for the ICC. But foes of the toll rates have nothing to base that on except for the gripes of those who would rather pay less. (Sure, and if the beer tax is raised a nickel, I'll stop drinking beer.)

The authority, on the other hand, hired a nationally respected consultant to gauge the level of demand for capacity on the ICC. Could the consultant be wrong? Perhaps. Then the tolls will have to come down. But if the market will support the higher rates, the authority would be remiss in charging anything less.

What is disappointing is to see Pagnucco suggesting that the General Assembly limit the independence of the transportation authority. Like Andrews, he should understand that the authority is not "accountable" to the voters for a good reason: Toll decisions are never popular. It will always be politically expedient to stiff the bond holders and to set artificially low tolls. That''s why the General Assembly was wiise to insulate  the authority from politics. That's what helps keep Maryland's cost of borrowing low. The bond rating agencies are unequivocal on that point: They penalize toll authorities that are not independent.

This is serious business for the Baltimore region. The toll facilities allong the Interstate 95 corridor, as well as the Bay Bridge, will have heavy maintenance costs oover the next decade. That's going to require heavy borrowing. If the authority's credit rating is trashed by intervenionist politicians, the state will have to pay many millions of dollars in additional interest.

So what part of that don't they understand in Montgomery County?


Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:41 AM | | Comments (2)

Don't count on salt to keep you safe


Snow plows


AP Photo   

On Dec. 5, a 47-year-old Ellicott Ciry man was killed in a crash on Route 100 near U.S. 29 during a relatively minor snowstorm that preceded last weekend's monster. Reader Robert I. Jeffrey of Columbia came across the scene of the fatality shortly afterward, and it prompted the following inquiry:

I arrived on the scene (see story below) about 45 minutes afterward.  It is truly tragic and might have been prevented.  I think it's worthy of some follow-up.

Here's my view:  I was driving westbound on Rt 100 at about 10 pm Sat.
evening.  The road was clear and mostly dry, but as the warnings
indicate, "bridges and overpasses freeze before roadbeds".  Sure enough,
ice covered the overpasses on Rt 100 causing some skidding.  There was
no evidence of salt or other treatments, despite ample time to heed
forecasts and apply anti-freezing treatments.  I presume that the icy
ramp on which this fatal accident occurred was also untreated.  Where
were the salt trucks that evening?!

In addition, I've noticed an unusually large number of non-functioning
highway lamps recently.  I'm a safety nut and believe that light reduces
all manner of danger, including traffic accidents.  Along I-95,
especially at entrance/exit ramps at Rt's 32 and 100, but along many
other heavily trafficked routes too between Columbia and College Park,
B'more and BWI, large numbers of lamps are out.  This is especially
noticeable at night (ha), but is worse in rainy conditions.

Beside being a safety nut, I'm also concerned about efficient spending.
I'm guessing the local government pays someone (BG&E?) regularly to
monitor and maintain these highway lights, but wonder who monitors the
contractors and holds them accountable for failures.

The State Highway Administration's Charlie Gischlar provided the following reply:

SHA responded to the storm of December 5 and used approximately 45 tons of salt over the course of more than 12 hours in the area of the US 29/MD 100 interchange.  SHA crews responded as the first flakes fell.  During the actual period of precipitation, the pavement temperatures remained slightly above freezing.  After the storm subsided, SHA continued to spread salt on the bridges, ramps and overpasses to prevent icing from occurring. There was a great deal of water on the roadway and temperatures began to fall.   In some cases, some regions began to freeze within 10 minutes of treatment.  Trucks stayed through the night to patrol for icy conditions.

SHA’s commitment to clearing the roads and patrolling for icy patches after a storm is a cornerstone to our duties to our customers.  We remain on patrol after a storm and make every attempt to keep the more than 17,000 lane miles throughout the State clear of ice and snow.  Motorists must keep in mind that it is winter and temperatures can vary slightly, creating an ice patch in colder regions.  Speed limits are established for ideal weather conditions (dry pavement). 

Regarding the question of highway lighting, SHA aggressively evaluates our highway lighting systems on a monthly basis.  Night inspections are logged and repairs are made as soon as possible.  If the problem is simply a burned out bulb, SHA crews can make repairs reasonably quickly.  For major electrical problems, such as electrical conduits that are cracked underground, the repairs may take longer.  As the lighting infrastructure continues to age, SHA is evaluating ways to make system repairs across the State.  Newer and more efficient headlights on cars, along with advances in line striping and reflectivity of road signs are diminishing the need for continuous highway lighting. 

During the last week of November and first week of December (prior to the storm), SHA lighting crews restored the US 29/MD 100 interchange.

Questions about the performance of the SHA and other traffic agencies are always valid. It's their job to keep the roads adequately lit and reasonably free of ice and snow. But  dark, icy and snowy roads by themselves don't kill anyone. Here's The Sun's report on that crash.

A 47-year-old Howard County man died Monday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore of injuries suffered in a traffic collision over the weekend on an icy ramp in Ellicott City, according to police. The weather conditions also led to a minor collision between a Howard County police car and an ambulance responding to the scene of the accident, which happened about 9:15 p.m. Saturday. Police said Nian Chen, 47, of the 3000 block of W. Springs Drive in Ellicott City was driving west on state Route 100 and merging onto U.S. 29 in a 2008 Honda Civic when he lost control of his car on the ramp, spun and crashed into a guardrail. He was standing outside the car when the driver of a 2003 Ford F-350 pickup truck lost control and struck him, according to police. The Ford then traveled down an embankment adjacent to southbound U.S. 29. The driver of the pickup, Nicholas Pullin, 20, of the 6000 block of Belmont Woods Road in Elkridge, was not injured. A police vehicle arriving on the scene slid into the side of an ambulance that was stopped on the bridge. No one was injured in that collision, police said.

The key phrase in the article is "lost control" -- which occurs twice. It's our  job as  drivers not to lose control -- even in adverse conditions. The main way we  do that is by being hyper-vigilant in foul weather and by adjusting our speed to the conditions rather than the speed limit.  And we can't count on salt to keep every inch of our highways ice- and snow-free at all times under alll  conditions.

Salt is a very effective way of making roads safer, but there's no way it can be construed as a guarantee that it can eliminate every slippery patch. It''s up to us to treat every stretch of icy or snow roadway as if it could be that one slippery spot that was missed.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: On the roads

December 21, 2009

MTA keeps going through the snow


                                                                                        The Sun/Karl Merton Ferron            

An MTA bus passenger waits for a ride Saturday.          

The Maryland Transit Administration did a little crowing Monday -- but I don't think you can blame the agency. They kept the buses and trains rolling through the worst of the weekend's snowstorm.

In a news release Monday, the agency noted that it kept local bus, light rail and Metro subway servvice going through the worst of the storm. It might not have run perfectly -- who could expect that with 21 inches of snow coming down? -- but it never ground to a halt as some regional transit agencies did.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley had good reason to be proud of her people when she released the following statement.

Despite severe weather conditions, the MTA maintained service throughout the
blizzard. I have tremendous pride in our employees who persevered, literally, in the eye of the storm to keep our service moving assafely and efficiently as possible.

The MTA's operations people deserve such kudos. It was a tough job -- especially with the Ravens hosting a game Sunday. And they came through. That's what happens when you let real professionals run a transit system.

Reporter finds himself at center of story

Since I started on the transportation beat more than five years ago, it has mostly been my privilege to report on other people's woes. Or, if I knew of an onerous situation, there were occasions when I willingly subjected myself to discomfort. But that was always voluntary.

Over the weekend, my luck ran out. After a week of enjoying blue skies and warm weather in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (I can feel your sympathies draining away, dear reader), my wife and I were scheduled to return on an Air Tran flight out of Cancun International Airport Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. -- arriving at BWI at 8 p.m.

Obviously it didn't work that way. This time, instead of interviewing people who were forced to stay in an airport overnight, I was one of those people. It seems BWI had been shut down tight because of some little snowstorm.

If you are going to be stranded in an airport overnight, you could do a lot worse than Cancun. The snack bar in our terminal stayed open untill well past midnight, and in "no problemo" Mexico that means beer for sale. Try to get a snack -- especially with a brew --- after midnight at stuffy old BWI. In Cancun, even one of the gift shops stayed open all night -- doing a brisk business in warm Mexican blankets that will make great repurposed Christmas gifts after being used just once on the marble floors of the airport.

But those amenities go only partway to compensate for the design of the seating, which serves too prevent anybody from getting too comfortable to sleep. Don't blame Cancun. Maximum discomfort has become the industry standard among airports worldwide.

Things didn't get much better after our Air Tran flight got off the ground at 5 a.m. Midway through our flight, we learned we were being routed through Atlanta because the customs officers in Baltimore were unavailable to work that morning.

Air Tran did the absolute minimum to keep passengers informed. Not mentioned were such matters as how to deal with liquor purchased duty-free in Cancun. It was only after rechecking my baggage in Atlanta did anyone mention a need to repack duty-free items to go through an unforeseen security check. Fortunately, a fellow passenger facing the same plight agreed to transport my bottle of a rare Mayan liqueur in his suitcase. At that point, sticking it to "The Man" overcame any warnings by the Transportation Security Administration. I didn't really expect him to seek me out at BWI and give it back (as the gentleman did). I just didn't want it to have to leave it as my contribution to the TSA inspectors' Christmas party.

(Note to Air Tran: Would it be too much to expect to have an airline rep on hand to deal with such problems when you've had a flight delayed more than 12 hours and then diverted?)

Anyway, we boarded our Atlanta flight at 11 a.m. and got to BWI at 12:30 p,m. All seemed well when we got to the baggage counter and retrieved the first of our suitcases. But we kept waiting and waiting and waiting while the second suitcase, which had been checked in immediately after the other, failed to appear. After several inquiries, we were told it was not at BWI and had probably been loaded on a later Atlanta flight.

To cut to the chase, that flight was late, and it wasn't until after 5 p.m. that my wife -- who had sent me home to keep me out of trouble -- straggled home with the missing bag. (Important travel hint: No matter how direct your flight may seem to be, always keep essential medicines in your carry-on luggage.)

Having found myself on the receiving end of the news, I find that I much prefer reporting it. Perhaps, however, the experience will make me more sensitive to the plight of others. Don't  count on it though.








Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:46 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Air travel

December 16, 2009

A modest proposal for camera revenue

Scott Offutt has a thought-provoking proposal on the Greater Greater Washington blog for the revenue generated by speed cameras and red light cameras that could overcome some people's suspicions that they are installed strictly to generate revenue.

The thought his idea provoked for me was that the revenues could be more effectively targeted than the general distribution of proceeds he proposes.

I would use any revenue beyond that which necessary to operate the system into rebates to owners whose Maryland-registered vehicles had not received any camera-generated tickets in the preceding years. These could take the form of vouchers to offset the high cost of registering a vehicle in Maryland. This could be an especially attractive program for employers who operate large fleets, and it would certainly provide an added incentive for them to adopt strict anti-speeding policies for their employees.

Instead of what some perceive as a government revenue grab, now you have a transfer of money from bad drivers to law-abiding motorists. The more speed cameras, the more money to distribute to good drivers. What's not to love?


Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: On the roads

December 15, 2009

Can state track thousands of interlocks?

The American Beverage Institute opposes mandatory ignition interlocks for first-time drunk driving convictions. So Sarah Kapenstein of the institute couldn't wait to share an item  from the group's blog with me and my readers.

Essentially, what the institute is doing is trying to use the tragic case of Thomas Meighan, the man accused of killing Johns Hopkins student Miriam Frankl (right) in a hit-and-run, to advance its position. Meighan, a serial drunk driver,  is charged with operating a motor vehicle in defiance of an order to use an  interlock device.

At first, I thought this was a classic case of lobbyist logic --  using one high-profile failure as an excuse to scrap an otherwise good idea. But on reflection, the institute raises a good question -- even if it does so in a crass way. Proponents of using the interlocks for first-time offenders need to make the case that requiring the the Motor Vehicle Administration to monitor large numbers of drivers ordered  to use ignition interlocks devices wouldn't degrade current efforts to keep tabs on the hard-core offenders.

My impression, however, is that there's not much the MVA can do to assure compliance by folks who are determined to game the system. So there might not be any harm to existing compliance  efforts from adding the new interlock customers. A high percentage of people will always comply because it's the law and there are punishments for being caught breaking it.

If Meighan is found to have bypassed the ignition interlock requirement, the real lesson is that there are some cases in which the only effective measure is vehicle confiscation. In cases where a driver disables an interlock device, there should be automatic impoundment upon arrest and auction upon conviction. Does the poor offender need to drive to work to feed the babies? Tough. Take a bus. Walk. Put the babies up for adoption. He or she shoulda thought of that before defying a court order.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: On the roads

December 14, 2009

Should MARC allow bikes on board?



Sun photo/Amy Davis            

There's an interesting article -- followed by a spirited discussion -- on the Greater Greater Washington blog about the wisdom of allowing bicycles on MARC trains.

As much as I like bikes and bicyclists, I'm skeptical. I tend to consider worst-case scenarios and I can't help but think that having bicycles on a rail car such as the one above -- without having a safe place to secure them -- could be a real safety hazard in the case of a derailment. In a crowded car, they could become an obstruction; in an uncrowded car, I can see them becoming a missile.

Instead, I would propose a solution employed by one gentleman of my acquaintance. He rides a bicycle to Penn Station and parks it there, takes the train down to Greenbelt, picks up a second bicycle that he keeps there and pedals to his workplace.

Cost should not be a big issue for most riders. Anyone can pick up a used second bike for a fraction of the cost of a new one through the print or online classified ads. Rather than lobby to get bikes on trains, bicyclists ought to concentrate their efforts on getting safe, secure bike lockers at each station.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Bicycles, MARC train

December 11, 2009

LaHood rebukes senator on bike paths


Bike path


AP photo         

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn recently singled out federal spending on bicycle paths as examples of waste in the use of economic stimulus funds. That earned him an unusual smackdown from none other than U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP congressman.

Bicyclists might enjoy this.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Off the roads

December 9, 2009

The curious case of the purple dots explained

Maryland Transportation Authority photo         

Sometimes the things government transportation agencies do -- and undo -- are baffling to ordinary travelers. A smart, useful innovation appears -- only to disappear mysteriously. Seldom does the public learn why.

Readers of this blog can now learn about the Case of the Purple Dots at the Fort McHenry Tunnel thanks to a perceptive question from reader Mary McDonald about the Fort McHenry Tunnel Toll Plaza (above) and a refreshingly candid response from Teri Moss of the Maryland Transportation Authority (awkwardly abbreviated below as MDTA).

McDonald wrote:

As those of us who regularly drive northbound through the Fort McHenry tunnel know, there's a huge curve when you come out of the tunnel exit and head towards the toll booths.  Because of that it's impossible to know which toll booth you'll end up at unless you have an advanced degree in geometry.  This leads to pretty dangerous lane cutting/drifting as people (and trucks) try to figure out how to aim themselves towards the EZ Pass lanes.
Last year, some brilliant MTA employee painted big purple circles on the road surface forming a path that guided cars and trucks towards the one permanent EZ Pass lane.  It was great, just great.  Of course, someone ordered them removed about two months later so now we're back to it being a dangerous and irritating free for all when you come out of the tunnel. 
I realize this is a small thing, but it was really helpful.  Who should I write to commend whoever had the idea to begin with and beg for its return?

Moss provided the following answer:

Please extend our thanks to Ms. MacDonald on her positive feedback about the program. 
The markings were removed when the top layer of pavement was removed for the toll plaza improvement project.  This project involved pavement rehabilitation and construction of new higher speed E-ZPass® lanes. 

According to our traffic manager, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved the MDTA’s work plan to implement the “purple dots” as an experimental traffic control (way-finding) device at the Fort McHenry Tunnel’s northbound toll plaza.  The MDTA’s report on the pilot program indicated benefits including a reduction in the number of “sudden” lane changes in the toll plaza during the experiment, improved lane utilization across dedicated E-ZPass lanes and that customers reported the purple dots were helpful.  

Upon completion of the initial experiment and submission of the final report to FHWA in May 2007, the FHWA did not feel there was sufficient data supporting continuation or expansion of the program and requested that MDTA provide crash data to document if the reduction in sudden lane changes had resulted in a reduced number of crashes.  The current crash reporting system utilized in Maryland does not provide enough detail to relate crashes in the toll plaza to a particular toll lane or payment type.  The FHWA also suggested that additional test sites would be needed before further discussion can occur on approving the purple dots as an acceptable traffic control device. 

At this time, due to current financial constraints, we have not solicited sister agencies for additional test sites nor approached FHWA about continuing the experiment to collect more detailed crash data.  We do not have a timeframe for another pilot program.  

You might want to remind your readers that there are dedicated higher-speed (30 mph) E-ZPass lanes on the left of the northbound and southbound toll plaza. The E-ZPass only lane on northbound prior to the tunnel and extends to the wider, higher-speed lane.   Also, E-ZPass is accepted at all lanes and we encourage motorists to utilize any lane to expedite their travel.  Vehicles must come to a complete stop in staffed lanes for collectors’ safety.

Let me know if you have any questions.  Again, we thank your reader for her positive feedback. Per this email I am passing her inquiry and suggestion along to our engineering and operations departments.

So it appears that any letters should be sent to Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 1200 New Jersey Ave SE, Washington, DC 20590. Writing to the authority would seem to be preaching to the converted.





Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:59 PM | | Comments (2)

ICC foes ought to stop sulking, get in the game



AP photo                  

The item below  illustrates my contention that environmental groups that once spent a llot of effort fighting the Intercounty Connector need to accept  the fact they lost, stop sulking and get engaged in the issues surrounding the opening of the toll road.

Many of these opponents are so emotionally affected by their defeat that they can't  get their heads around the fact that the ICC is for all intents and purposes existing infrastructure. And existing infrastructure, as anyone who took Smart Growth 101 knows, is something to be valued and put to maximum use.

The action taken by the Maryland Department of Transportation to procure 18 buses is a start toward deliveriing on the promise that the ICC will be used as a corridor for transit as well as executives in their Hummers.

Environmental groups should be wading into the debate -- demanding even more resources for transit on the ICC and low fares. Those are goals more consistent with protecting the Chesapeake Bay than complaining about high tolls and vowing personal boycotts.

Maryland needs strong, smart environmental advocacy just as much as it need healthy businesses. It's time for the greens to drop the hissy fit and move on to the next battles -- including the one for robust, affordable transit service on the ICC. Their chance of influencing policy is much greater if they weigh in before it has been announced.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: On the roads

December 8, 2009

State buying 18 buses for ICC routes


Commuter bus


The opening of the first phase of the Intercounty Connector is not expected before next October, but Maryland is preparing for its debut by ordering 18 commuter "clean diesel" buses for eventual transit service on the highway.

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s recently awarded, $9.1 million contract for purchase of the buses (pictured above) from Motor Coach Industries of Schaumburg, Ill., will go to the Board of Public Works for approval next week.

Rather than have the Maryland Transit Administration operate the buses, the department plans expects to give that job to a private contractor in an arrangement similar to that on its existing commuter bus routes. A bid solicitation is expected next year.

The state is planning to start four new bus routes to travel the ICC. Two will begin when the first phase – between Georgia Avenue and Interstate 370 – opens. Those will travel between Gaithersburg and BWI Marshall Airport and Gaithersburg and Fort Meade. Both will use the open segment of the ICC and local roads until the toll road connects with Interstate 95 in late 2011 or early 2012. Early plans call for the buses to make three or four stops between the Gaithersburg Park and Ride and their destinations. The state is also considering connections with the MARC Penn Line.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said bus routes had been in the plans for the ICC, a controversial highway that was delayed for decades by environmental objections, since early in the planning process.

"We’re hopeful that we’ll have very good ridership," she said. "Obviously, we expect to reap great benefits when we open the entire ICC."

Swaim-Staley said she believes there will be an especially heavy demand among Montgomery County residents for bus rides to BWI and Fort Meade.

"They’re strong transit users. They’re used to having a good bus system," she said.

The secretary said she hopes the ICC route to the airport will replicate the success of the B30 bus route between the Greenbelt Metro and BWI. She noted that the Fort Meade route would start up at a time when the facility is expecting an increase in employment and traffic because of base realignment. She said base officials expect heavy demand for transit choices among workers there.

When the highway is fully open, the state plans to add ICC routes between Bethesda and Columbia and Gaithersburg and College Park. The 18 buses the state is buying are expected to serve all four routes. Each bus will have 55 seats for a cumulative capacity of 990 riders.

Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said no fare structure has been decided for the routes that will use the ICC but added that they are likely to be similar to the prevailing $4.25 one-way fare on existing commuter routes.

Cahalan said the clean diesel buses were chosen over the hybrid diesel-electric technology being used in the Baltimore bus fleet because the hybrids are less efficient on free-flowing highways than in stop-and-go traffic.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 6:09 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

MTA delays smart cards but takes plastic

The Maryland Transit Administration has delayed its plans to introduce "smart card" technology for payment of fares for about six months -- pushing its goal to next fall.

 The agency had previously estimated that it would introduce the smart cards -- which allow riders to store value on the cards and speed up payments -- this winter. But MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said the agency had decided it needed to conduct additional beta testing on the bus and light rail systems after finishing such tests on the Metro subway.

"We're going to give you the best product we can when it's ready," she said.

Giving its passengers a kind of consolation prize, the MTA also announced Tuesday it has equipped its subway stations with payment machines that now take credit cards as well as cash. The MTA said the machines will accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express.

The agency also said it expects to have all its light rail stations ready to take credit cards within the next 90 days.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:05 PM | | Comments (10)

Ceremony to remember victims of drunk driving

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and state Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley will lead a ceremony Wednesday in Annapolis to commemorate the lives people who lost their lives in drunken-driving crashed in Maryland.

Relatives and friends of the victims will hold a procession during which they will add photographs of those who were killed to a display at the Milller Senate Office Building,

The Maryland Remembers event begins at 10:45 a.m. Last year 152 people were killed in crashes in Maryland in which intoxication was a factor.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

A reader's warning: SUVs not immune to snow

Sun photo/Amy Davis/2007

A reader named Jackie Watts wrote in to point out that during the unpleasantness of last weekend's snowfall,  many Maryland drivers stubbornly refused to adjust their speed in any way to slippery conditions. She discerned that this behavior is especially prevalent among drivers of huge SUVs.

I have hesitated to jump into the batttle eternal between SUV owners and those of us in vehicles of more modest dimensions. But I have to say Jackie is right. During the heaviest snowfall Saturday, I noticed that SUV drivers were in many cases barreling down the road at 55 and up as a thick, goopy snow was falling.

There were a few years in the 1990s when I regularly drove an SUV. When I finally got rid of it, I noticed that my cognition suddenly improved. Perhaps the air gets a little thin up there in those high seats. So those who drive the big beasts would do well to pay heed to Jackie:

Would you mind reminding (again) SUV drivers that their vehicles are no better in ice and snow than, say, my Chevy Cobalt? I had to go to Pikesville Saturday evening for a wedding and reception and passed one accident, a fender-bender, on the Beltway on my way to at about 6 p.m.  and three accidents--one at Reisterstown Road by the Beltway entrance, one on the Jones Falls Expressway near Ruxton Road and one farther down, between Northern Parkway and Coldspring Lane, at about 11 p.m. 

The first two were rather serious, involving firefighters with implements to extract people from their mangled cars. All of them involved SUVs which had mashed smaller cars against guard rails.

As I drove home on I-83, I noticed that people in SUVs traveled at or over the speed limit while smaller cars drove slower. I drove at 40-45 mph, and I don't care how many people extended their middle fingers to me in friendship, I got home. The bridges were like skating rinks and as you know most of the JFX after Northern Parkway is elevated. I believe, though I can't prove, that one of the SUVs in the second accident I passed had passed me right after Ruxton Road, going at least 60. It was a large dark Ford Expedition, and there are a million of them on the road.

It was a Saturday night, and so alcohol might have been involved but I am betting not. People were just driving way too fast for the condition of the road.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: On the roads

December 7, 2009

Maryland drunken-driving numbers improve

 Alcohol fatality map

Let's stipulate up front that the 152 drunken-driving deaths on Maryland roads in 2008 was 152 too many.

Nevertheless, that number represents significant progress in a state that registered 178 deaths related to alcohol impairment the previous year. Maryland's improvement vaulted it into the top tier of states in terms of fewest drunken-driving fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The agency released state-by-state figures Monday showing that Maryland was one of 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, with fewer an alcohol fatality rate of under 0.30. Maryland's rate of 0.28 was down from 0.32 in 2007. The state's 12.5 percent decline in fatality rate exceeded the national decrease of 7 percent.

Drunken-driving fatality rates ranged from a low of 0.16 in Vermont to a high of 0.84 in Montana. The states with the highest drunken-driving fatality rates were concentrated in the northern Rocky Mountain states and the Deep South.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released the figures yesterday as part of the kickoff of a national crackdown on drunken driving over the holiday season. Maryland's plans for its role in the "Over The Limit. Under Arrest" campaign include sobriety checkpoints, saturation patrols and free cab ride  programs.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: On the roads

December 4, 2009

AAA issues warning on pickup trucks

After last weekend's tragic crash in which a 17-year-old River Hill High School football player was killed in Howard County, AAA Mid-Atlantic issues a warning against the dangers of riding in the bed of a pickup truck.

Stephen Joseph Dankos dies when he was  thrown from the cargo area of a pickup truck that crashed while being driven by a friend's 22-year-old brother, who was subsequently charges with drunk driving, vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 200 deaths occur  every year on U.S. roads as a result of carrying passengers from pickup truck beds. AAA noted that the Maryland law forbidding riding in the back of a pickup truck does  not apply to people 16 or older. It exempts those under 15 if the vehicle is  traveling less than 25 mph.

“Children and teenagers account for more than half of the deaths that occur each year in this country as a result of riding in the cargo area of pickup trucks,” said Ragina C. Averella, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Few, if any, pickup trucks have seat belts in the back, and riding in the back of pickup trucks unrestrained is dangerous and  deadly.”

There may narrow, limited examples where the practice is acceptable.  For instance, I have no problem with a farmer transporting adult workers between fields on low-traffic local roads at low speeds. But in general the practice is clearly unsafe. The cargo areas of pickup trucks are meant  for that -- cargo. (And well secured cargo at that -- especially at interstate speeds.) The General Assembly  should look at tightening the law.

Even wiithout legislation, parents can lay down their own laws. When a kid with a pickup truck picks up a teenager, Mom or Dad should anticipate that at some point the driver might try to overstuff the vehicle. As a parent, I'd also think twice about letting a son or daughter own or borrow a pickup without a compelling reason and clear rules regarding passengers in back.

DISCLAIMER: Several years ago, I did some riding along with my son in the back of a rented pickup to get to the beaches on a small Caribbean island with light road  traffic. Obviously we survived, but in retrospect it wasn't such a hot idea.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:29 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: On the roads

Middies to keep highway shipshape

Midshipmen from the Naval Academy will take part in the State Highway Administration's effort to keep Maryland's roadways clean Saturday by picking up litter along Ritchie Highway (Route 2) just outside Annapolis.

The middies will be taking part in the agency's Adopt-a-Highway program between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. in the vicinity of Lumber 84 just north of U.S. 50. According to the highway administration, volunteers have saved the state millions of dollars by picking up trash from alongside Maryland's non-interstate highways since the program started in 1989.

The state highway folks are always looking for new groups to join in the community service work. Information of the program can be found by clicking here.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Off the roads

Wells appointment getting good reviews

Gerald Neilly welcomes the appointment of Ralign T. Wells as chief of the Maryland Transit Administration in an article in The Baltimore Brew.

It's just one of the favorable reactions I've been hearing to the promotion of the 42-year-old former bus operator to the top MTA post.

Ed Cohen, former president of the Transit Riders Action Council, knows the Balltimore bus, Metro and light rail system about as well as anyone on the planet. His verdict: "He's the best guy MTA has."

Cohen said Wells, who had been the deputy administrator for operations, was the candidate transit folks had been rooting for ever since the departure of Paul J. Wiedefeld was announced.

"He loves his job. He loves trying to make transit better to the extent he can," Cohen said. "He's a guy that really relished tthe challenge and it'ss that character trait that is reallly going to  mean good things for MTA."

Meanwhile, deputy Baltiimore transportation director Jamie Kendrick called the choice by Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley "phenomenal," adding that Wells  has the support of the agency rank-and-file.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:22 AM | | Comments (1)

Chicago shows perils of infrastructure leases

When money is tight and there's a lack of public will to raise taxes or sacrifice services, it can be awfully tempting for public officials to raise some quick cash by signing a sweetheart long-term lease deal for a toll facility or other revenue-raising public asset.

But as the case of the Chicago parking meters shows, these deals are fraught with peril for generations to come. Current elected officials will always be tempted to front-load the benefits to avoid unpopular tax increases or spending cuts on their watch while short-changing the future. There'a a posterity-be-damned political ethos prevailing that needs a legal counterweight before Maryland begins falling into similar traps.

In Chicago, the  City Council just approved Mayor Richard M. Daley's plan to raid the reserve fund created through a 75-year lease deal for the future revenue of the city's parking meter's to balance one year's tough  budget. In effect, the city pocketed money that was intended to make up for lost parking revenue for the next three generations.

The mechanism I propose to prevent such shenanigans would be the establishment of a Counsel for Future Generations, modeled on the People's Counsel that defends the interests of residential ratepayers in utility cases. That lawyer should be charged with representing the rights of the people at the back end of these long-term lease deals, with authority to challenge any lease deal or raid on a  reserve fund that is stacked in favor of today's taxpayers  at the expense of tomorrow's. And judges should be given the responsibilty of assuring that today's public officials don't enter into deals that cheat the future.

If these protections are put in place by anything less than a state constitutional amendement, it will be all to easy to abrogate them when in the middle of one of the state's periodic budget  "crises." So why not put a measure on the ballot for the 2010 election providing safeguards for any public obligation lasting longer than 25 years? Your great-grandkids would thank you.



Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:11 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: For policy wonks only

December 3, 2009

New date set for Charm City Circulator

The first route of the Charm City Circulator -- the long-delayed free bus service promised for central Baltimore -- will make its debut Jan. 11, according to the city and the Waterfront Partnership.

Previous estimated start dates have come and gone for the project, but deputy city transportation director Jamie Kendrick insists this one is for real.

"That's a hard, fast and furious date," Kendrick said. He said the reason for the holdup was delay in receiving delivery of the clean-energy buses from the manufacturer.

The new bus service will be operated by Veolia Transportation  under a contract with the city Department of Transportation, Kendrick said. He said the  Waterfront Partnership will help with the marketing effort.

The first route to start operations will be the east-west Orange Route, connecting the B&O Railroad Museum with the Inner Harbor, Harbor East and Fells Point. Kendrick said two additional routes would start up over the next few months. One would connect the Cross Street Market area with Penn Station; the other would tie the Johns Hopkins Hospital with Fells Point and Harbor East.

Kendrick said people in the city might see some of the buses on the street even before Jan. 11 as operators get familiar with the routes. He said the city will begin putting down markings for bus and bike lanes on Pratt and Lombard streets Monday.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:38 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: City bus service

Wells appointment at MTA lauded

The news of the appointment of Ralign T. Wells as chief of the Maryland Transit Administration brought this reaction from Ken Chapman, a retired MTA employee who now lives in Charlotte, N.C.:

As a recent, 31 year retired MTA management employee (November 2008), I certainly applaud the decision by both the Secretary and Governor to appoint Mr. Wells as MTA Administrator. I happen to be an employee who also came up through the ranks, working in several departments. And yes, Mr. Wells is the ONLY employee who managed to come up through the ranks and land the Administrator’s job. He is not a political type who relies on politicians to get a job or advance his career. Mr. Wells is simply a transit official who is very well respected and comes with great leadership abilities.

Mr. Walter J. Addison was the first MTA Administrator, followed by Kimble, Wagner, Hartman, Agro, Freeland, White (Acting), Smith, Dickerson and Wiedefeld. In addition, Mr. Wells has experienced Deputies who should serve him well. I know. I worked with all of them and they certainly understand what it takes to advance transit in Maryland.

By the way, the salary of the new MTA chhief will be $183,000.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)

December 2, 2009

MARC locomotive update: Looking better

The MARC system stands or falls on the strength of its locomotives, and a few months ago it was virtually falling apart on the Penn Line because so many of its electric engines were disabled. Late trains and trains with too few cars were a daily olccurrence.

But Amtrak found a way to fix the AEM-7 locomotives that had been laid up for more than two years, and the engines are gradually working their way back into service. Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan provided the following update as of Wednesday, saying the MTA is continuing too make progress:


Two of the AEM-7’s are now in revenue service and performing well.  In fact, I saw one of the MARC AEM’s operating solo last week when I was waiting for a train at BWI station.

The third AEM is in revenue testing on the Penn Line paired with another locomotive.  Same testing process MTA did for the first two.

The fourth AEM is still with Amtrak but work should be completed by the middle of this month.  It will then go through the same revenue test process as the other three.

Cahalan said the certification work being done on the 26 new model diesels the MTA has been eagerly awaiting  since the spring is 80 percent complete and is expected to be completed in the next few weeks.  If nothing unexpected crops up, he said, the first of the new diesels will enter revenue testing -- powering an actual train but with a backup locomotive -- by the end of this month.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:01 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: MARC train

Former bus driver Wells is new MTA chief

Ralign WellsMaryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley announced the appointment Wednesday of former bus driver Ralign T. Wells to head the Maryland Transit Administration.

Wells, an MTA veteran who is now deputy administrator for operations, will replace Paul J. Wiedefeld, who is leaving the MTA after almost three years as administrator to return to his old job as chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

In choosing the 42-year-old Wells for the $183,000 post, Swaim-Staley and Gov. Martin O'Malley are turning to a veteran MTA insider who began his career at the agency two decades ago as a bus operator. At the MTA, Wells has served in a variety of positions, including deputy director of bus operations and director of Metro subway operations.

Swaim-Staley said Wells was responsible for implementing a new MTA scheduling policy that cut the agency's overtime budget by 26 percent in eight months.



Ralign T. Wells

December 1, 2009

Much ado about MARC seats

Let me first assure all of you riders out in MARC land that I love you and I feel your pain as you endure the unspeakable agonies of llong-distance commuting.

But try as I might to work up waves of sympathy for your plight, I can't see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the seats on the double-decker cars recently acquired from Virginia Railway Express.

After receiving several complaints about the seats on the new rail cars on MARC's Penn Line, I decided the matter deserved investigation. So on Monday afternoon I took a trip on the MARC line from Penn Station to Union Station and back so that I could subject the new seats to a personal rump test.

There were none of the new cars on the 4:50 train I caught at Penn Station, so I took the opportunity to refresh my recollection of the comfort level of MARC's older cars. They are, in fact, superb. Riders of the Maryland Transit Administration's other  modes of travel would be envious.

On the return journey, I found one of the new cars with the seats I'd heard  so  much about. The car was almost full, despite the fact there were seats availlable in the older cars farther  down the track. None of the passengers I observed was obviously writhing in agony, so I sat down in the aisle seat next to a fellow passenger who occupied the window seat.

There is, indeed, less leg room than in the older cars. Nor is there an arm rest between the seats. But at 5-foot-11, I found there too be ample room  for my creaky, middle-aged knees. The lack  of an arm rest was hardly noticeable. The comfort level was perhapa a little less than the older seats, but the seats were hardly the instruments  of medieval torture some readers made them out to be. It might have become uncomfortable on a trans-Atlantic flight, but for a 40-minute train ride between Washington and Baltimore, it was perfectly adequate.

Bill McIntyre of Charles Village reached a similar conclusion.  At 6-foot-2 he would seem to have every reason to complain about leg room, but he chose a nearby ex-VRE car over the more distant older cars.

McIntyre said the oolder cars are probably a little more comfortable but said the new ones are "not bad." He dismissed the complaints about the newer seats.

"They say the squeaky wheel gets the most oil, so some people tend to exaggerate," he said.

Ben Larson of Ednor Gardens said the  new cars are "pretty much the same" as the  old. He said the new seats certainly beat having to stand.

"Adding new cars is a  good thing. If they're not perfect, that's fine," he said.

As much as it pains me to do so, I have to conclude that MTA officials made the right call in getting more seating capacity onto the Penn Line  as soon as they could rather than sending the VRE cars out for an expensive and time-consuming retrofitting. Those who find the new MARC seats unbearable ought to take a few rides on the light rail line to regain some perspective.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:42 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: MARC train
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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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