Maryland's 'autobahn' Many putting pedal to the metal on I-97

December 20, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Trooper William McMeins pulled his State Police cruiser onto Maryland's "autobahn" and began searching for prey.

In less than a minute he found it: an 18-year-old shampoo attendant who was late for an appointment with a friend. Late enough to hit 70 mph on southbound Interstate 97, just before it dumps onto U.S. 50 outside Annapolis.

McMeins swung his big Chevy Caprice across the median and pulled the teen over.

"I hate this road now!" she exclaimed. "Everybody speeds. Most of the traffic on I-97 does between 65 and 70."

Or faster.

Unlike its German cousin, the autobahn, I-97 from the Baltimore Beltway to U.S. 50 has a speed limit. But you might not know it some days.

Signs plead, "STILL! SPEED LIMIT 55," but many who drive the Baltimore-to-Annapolis route remain unconvinced. It's a road where people who drive only 5 miles per hour above the speed limit avoid the passing lane during rush hour. That is, unless they want to provoke a frenzy of headlight-flashing and tailgating.

The speeding bothers police and slower drivers.

"Motorists have complained that they feel like they're driving on a runway at BWI," State Police spokesman Chuck Jackson said.

The fastest section is the newest and least congested one, which winds gently through fields and forests from south of Glen Burnie to U.S. 50.

Even usually law-abiding folk turn into Indy 500 contestants there.

"My average speed is -- don't laugh at me -- 70 or 80," confessed an attorney who commutes daily to Annapolis on I-97.

He has two speeding tickets and a warning. Like other drivers interviewed, he did not want his name printed.

Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer's car has been spied racing down I-97. One hot night last August, a reporter happened upon the gubernatorial Cadillac barreling toward Annapolis at speeds well above 70 mph. It was not apparent whether Schaefer was in the car because it was dark and the reporter's aging compact couldn't keep up.

Why do people drive so fast on I-97?

"It's just so darn conducive to going fast on," the lead-footed attorney replied. "It's just wide open. It's a rural interstate highway. There's limited access to the road."

Police agree. "It's not hard to go fast on this road," said Trooper McMeins.

The southernmost end of I-97 is considered a rural interstate highway. As such, it would be a candidate for a 65 mph speed limit if Maryland were to enact a law raising the speed limit on rural interstates. The General Assembly passed a 65 mph bill last year, but Schaefer vetoed it.

I-97 is not the only road in Maryland with lead-footed drivers. Two other interstates that draw motorists' complaints are I-95 north of Baltimore and I-83 south of the Pennsylvania border, Jackson said.

The Capital Beltway (I-495) west of New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County has the dubious distinction of having more traffic exceeding 65 mph -- 29 percent -- than any other interstate monitored in 1991.

The State Highway Administration monitors speeds on randomly selected interstates, but I-97 is not among them. Neither highway nor police officials could provide hard data on speeds on I-97, but from experience, it's high on their list of state raceways.

In this case, speed doesn't necessarily translate into added danger. The accident rate on I-97 is no higher than on comparable highways statewide.

The portion of I-97 from Md. 32 to U.S. 50 opened four years ago, a welcome north-south alternative to Ritchie Highway.

From Md. 32, workers pushed northward, adding lanes, removing stop lights and reconfiguring interchanges along the path of the existing Md. 3 in Anne Arundel County.

When completed, the 17.6-mile, $487 million interstate will replace most of Md. 3. Construction crews have $211 million worth of work to do on the upper segment from the Baltimore Beltway to Glen Burnie.

The completion date, however, is in doubt. The Maryland Department of Transportation has placed I-97 improvements on hold because it says it does not have enough money for the work.

For now, motorists probably will notice that the northern segment of I-97/Md. 3 has fewer lanes and shorter exit and entrance ramps than the completed sections south of Glen Burnie.

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