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Commentary: Maryland commuters need reliable public transit

Maryland Transit Administration photo.

By Philip Dodge

The writer is executive director at the Downtown Columbia Partnership.

Columbia, along with countless other Maryland communities, was first envisioned when the car was king. Planners, engineers, and politicians all agreed that the city of the future revolved around the automobile, sprawl was common, and the highway offered the ultimate freedom.

Today, we know that these priorities were misguided. Far from heralding an age of utopian prosperity, car-centric design has brought us bumper-to-bumper congestion, inequity in our transportation networks and made us a leader in per capita carbon emissions. Downtown Columbia is working to right those wrongs but can’t do it alone.

To turn downtown Columbia into a walkable, bikeable, mixed-use community, we need to supply people with mobility options that go beyond the car. Safe, frequent, and reliable public transit is the lifeblood of any dynamic city center. Unfortunately, the recent news that the state is significantly cutting commuter bus service to our area and so many others will set back our goals to improve equity, sustainability and mobility.

We know that these decisions aren’t made lightly, and when belts tighten tough choices need to be made. However, it’s imperative that the full consequences of these actions are laid bare.

We’re proud to align with Gov. Wes Moore on improving transit and making Maryland safer for pedestrians and cyclists. In downtown Columbia, we’re making big strides to increase density, build mixed-use spaces, and, most importantly, to improve the transportation experience for anyone with or without a car.

Sadly, that won’t be enough. While we make local improvements, cuts to regional transit will hit our residents hard, and force many who would otherwise take the bus into cars, if they own one.

The result? More traffic, more emissions, and less safety for everyone. Transportation by car is more expensive than public transit, hitting many in their pocketbooks, at a time when high costs are already causing many to feel the squeeze.

Transit also serves a vital role in ensuring critical services are delivered locally and efficiently. Without commuter bus service, those who are the backbone of our community — teachers, nurses, service workers, law enforcement, business professionals and anyone who can’t always afford to fill their gas tank — will all have a harder time getting to work.

Worsened commutes and lack of access may also lead to some leaving their jobs in our area, delivering a blow to the local economy. No matter which way you shake it — environmental, economic, equitable — you always get to the same place; we need more and better transit in and around downtown Columbia.

Howard County needs support from the state to address the needs for our public transit systems today and into the future. As Columbia, Maryland’s second largest “city” (technically, we’re unincorporated), continues to grow, this lack of transit will significantly impede our ability to meet critical goals and make our businesses less competitive compared to more transit-oriented locales. There just isn’t a world-class downtown Columbia, or any commuter town in Maryland, without reliable transit.

Downtown Columbia recently completed an update to its Transportation Demand Management Plan, which will guide the next 3-5 years of transportation policy in the area. Without state support, our county will need to focus almost entirely on local fixes to transit and pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, far from sufficient to fully address congestion, sustainability, or equity.

As we look forward even further into the future, we ask that Maryland works with us to help create the kinds of communities we aspire to live in by fully investing in transit in downtown Columbia and across Howard County. Together, we can realize our mission of creating a transit-connected and accessible downtown Columbia and Maryland.


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Commentary: Maryland commuters need reliable public transit