Getting to Work (and Elsewhere) With More Cars, More Traffic and More Roadwork
Around 5:45 a.m. every weekday, Ajay Sharma leaves his Frederick home and drives to a local grocery store parking lot. There, he meets up with five other National Institutes of Health co-workers who board the van kept at Sharma’s home on nights and weekends. The group rotates drivers so each person is only driving one day out of six.
When he isn’t in the driver’s seat, Sharma takes a nap while others listen to music or read the news on their phones. “We have become extended family members and we help each other,” he says. “We talk to each other.” They arrive in Bethesda around 7 a.m.
Sharma moved to Frederick in October 2000. He and his wife drove together down I-270 for their jobs but when she took a position at Fort Detrick in 2001, he knew the commute would be too much for him to drive daily by himself. “People don’t realize how much toll [commuting] takes on the body,” he says, citing the stress of sitting in traffic and breathing in the exhaust fumes from vehicles. “To me, as a scientist, I feel that the cost on the body is more important than [financial] cost.”
Over the years, Sharma has joined a couple of different van pools. His current one has him driving around three times every month, but there is flexibility. If he needs to drive himself to get to a doctor’s appointment, he can. If someone is sick or taking a vacation day in the pool, others fill in.
The group usually leaves the NIH campus around 4 p.m. “It’s been working really well for us for such a long time,” he says. “… The best part is your loved ones who are waiting for you know you will be there on time.”
PAIN BEFORE PROGRESS
Roughly 120,000 county residents leave their homes to go to work, with almost 69,000 staying in the county and about 50,000 traveling to other destinations in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., region, according to the revised 2015 U.S. Census. But whether they drive, take the MARC train, catch a county TransIT bus or van pool, there are a number of transportation infrastructure improvements in progress, or soon to start, that are aimed at lessening these commutes.
Since summer 2015, construction equipment and crews have been a common sight on U.S. 15 as work has continued on the Monocacy Boulevard interchange. Set to provide a direct connection between Christopher’s Crossing and Monocacy Boulevard, the interchange will take away the days where drivers had to wait for a break in 55-mph-plus, two-lane traffic to quickly cross U.S. 15. The project also includes a 400-space ride-sharing lot with service to an MTA commuter bus. Charlie Gischlar, Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman, says the project is “going to be mostly, hopefully, to the driver benefit by the end of the year, if not early 2018, and then everything wrapped up by the spring. …That [interchange] is really, really going to improve traffic through that area and keep traffic moving. That’s the biggest thing. Keep traffic moving.” Tim Davis, City of Frederick transportation planner, says the project will be a benefit to commuting. “It will give people other options than having to drive straight through town on U.S. 15,” he says.
The city recently shut down Monocacy Boulevard from Schifferstadt Boulevard to Gas House Pike for an 18-month-long project including a new bridge construction and widening the road. In the city’s comprehensive plan since the early 1980s, Monocacy Boulevard was initially conceived to be a bypass to the city. “You can imagine since then the city has grown outside of those boundaries,” Davis says. “It’s no longer a bypass. However, it still functions as a major arterial roadway that is integral to our transportation system.”
Davis says the project will—eventually—help commuters in two ways. The construction will help single-occupancy vehicles avoid U.S. 15 and allow full-size TransIT vehicles to use the new route. But those benefits won’t be realized until 2019.
Since the closure, residents have expressed much frustration with the added road congestion, which Davis understands. “You’ve always got to tell people that, in the end, it is going to be a significant improvement and that is, in fact, the case, so that has to be the emphasis of the discussion while understanding people’s frustration with the current situation,” he says. “Things of this nature, closures of this nature that go on for a year and a half, the problems that come in the first couple of weeks tend to work themselves out. People tend to look for a path of least resistance. Over time, they will find those other routes other than the designated route that we planned out from the beginning. In time, those [frustrations] tend to level off and not be as bad as they were in the beginning.”
Davis cites the end of daylight saving time as an example of adapting to change. On the Monday after the change, traffic is usually congested because people are getting used to driving in the dark again. Over time, people adjust and traffic goes back to normal. “[The Monocacy Boulevard project is] akin to that sort of situation that there is a big change and people make the adjustment and in time the adjustment pays off for everybody in the long run. Once the improvement actually goes through people realize that, ‘Wow, in the end, this was for the best’.”
BRIDGING THE GAPS
The county Division of Public Works has a number of ongoing transportation projects, but among the main ones is work on Boyers Mill Road from Gas House Pike to Old National Pike. The first stage saw a new bridge constructed over Lake Linganore, adding sidewalks, shoulders and improved alignment. The previous bridge had also been weight-restricted but the new construction is not.
County crews are now working on the next stage by removing a four-way stop and adding a roundabout at Eaglehead Drive and Boyers Mill Road. This phase, which will also include adding shoulders, is set to be completed in the summer. “[The area] was getting enough traffic volumes that it would warrant a signal or a roundabout and a roundabout is a passive intersection control. If we have appropriate traffic characteristics, [a roundabout] is desirable to have over a signal,” says Jason Stitt, chief for the county Office of Transportation Engineering. “Overall, it has a better level of safety and overall more efficient operation.”
Transportation has been a priority in Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, including investing millions to replace or rebuild nearly 70 structurally deficient bridges across the state. Two upcoming 2018 bridge projects in the county include Md. 355 at Bennett Creek and Md. 28 over the Monocacy River. “A lot of the bridges in Frederick were built 60, 70, 80 years ago, so they are approaching their shelf life,” Gischlar says. “We can’t really do much in terms of rehabilitation anymore on some of these because … you can only patch something so many times before you have to replace it. …We usually make [new bridges] a little bit wider to accommodate bicycles, bicycle shoulders, sidewalks and that type of thing. It helps keeps the infrastructure a step ahead of age and the aging process.”
In September, Hogan also proposed a $9 billion public-private partnership to widen I-270, along with the Capital Beltway (I-495) and the Baltimore Washington Parkway (Md. 295) by adding toll lanes to each. Due to the private-sector involvement, Hogan stated the proposal would not require taxpayer money. The plan to help unclog these roads, known for some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, was inspired by ventures in Northern Virginia, including building High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the Capital Beltway and I-95.
In another announcement in late October, Hogan noted a $50 million plan to install smart traffic signals that will adjust lights based on real-time conditions and computer software. Out of the 14 corridors chosen for the project, none were in Frederick County, but they may be coming soon. “You’ll see technological advances as we enter the next couple of years where signals talk to one another,” Gischlar says. “They measure in real time using the data we have now. … That’s the wave of the future.”
When people think about Frederick County TransIT, many will get a picture of a large bus in their mind. That is a big part of the agency, but it also offers other options, including commuter services. Through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which the county is a member, the online Commuter Connections program offers a ride-sharing database, along with Guaranteed Ride Home, an initiative designed to give residents who use alternative forms of transportation at least two times a week up to four free rides home if an emergency should occur during their work hours. More than 800 county residents are involved with one or both of the programs.
“I think a lot of people have that stigma of they don’t want to jump on a MARC train or they don’t want to get in a carpool with someone because there is always that worry of, ‘What if something happens?’” says Kendall Tiffany, TransIT’s community relations manager. “[Guaranteed Ride Home] is something that will take you back either to your car or home—whatever is closer, depending on the situation. … It’s really rare that people actually use their four trips, which is great. Everyone we have spoken to has had a pretty positive experience with it.”
The county also has a couple of different apps that riders may use. If people don’t have cash for a ride, they may use the TransIT ezFARE app to purchase a fare and just show a mobile ticket when they get on the bus. Also, if companies are providing transportation as a work benefit, they can purchase the mobile tickets and send them to employees’ phones. Government agencies and even parents can use the service similarly.
Another popular app is RouteShout 2.0 which tracks where all the TransIT buses are in real time. Those who don’t have a smartphone but can text just need to look on the bus stop sign for a unique three-digit number and text it to 25252 to get an automatic response back of when the bus will arrive.
This spring, TransIT Connector buses began offering free WiFi for users. “If somebody wants to catch up on a Netflix show or wants to read a book, they can certainly utilize that [WiFi],” Tiffany says. “That is something you couldn’t do if you are driving a car by yourself. You can get some other things done if you are not driving alone.”