In the rural community of Lisbon in western Howard County, few topics these days get the locals as revved up as the traffic circle, or "roundabout," proposed for the intersection of Route 144 (Old National Pike) and Route 94 (Florence/Woodbine Road). Construction could begin by June.
One Howard humorist already has labeled the 110-foot-wide circle "the Lisbon Beltway." Harsher critics call it a pain in the chassis. "If they put it in, I'm taking helicopter lessons and flying to work," vows an opponent of the State Highway Administration project.
What are Lisbon residents getting so overheated about? Apparently some resent being made test dummies for Maryland's first modern roundabout.
They admit the intersection has a bad history -- 40 accidents in the past five years; 49 people injured; a 1989 rating as a crossing with a high number of mishaps -- but they say all that's needed is a traffic signal. (At present, drivers must heed flashing red lights and stop signs on Route 144 and flashing yellow lights on Route 94.)
SHA officials argue that the old-fashioned roundabout is safer and more cost-efficient than a traffic signal. The one-way, single-lane Lisbon circle would also be easy to use. It would work much like a revolving door; vehicles approaching the circle from either of the four directions would enter only after an opening emerged.
Inside the circle, the speed limit would likely be 10 to 20 miles per hour. That's kid stuff compared to the high-speed, multi-lane traffic circles that terrorize visitors to Washington, D.C.
The county's top traffic engineering official adds that even if a mishap took place in the circle, it probably would be something like a slow-speed sideswiping. That sort of accident is much less dangerous than the head-on or perpendicular collisions common most intersections.
State officials say they're considering other Maryland locations where roundabouts could be tried.
Like the Lisbon intersection, which 6,000 vehicles pass through daily, the other potential sites must have low to medium traffic volume. Finding sites won't be hard, say the officials. The biggest obstacle, they claim, will be opposition from local folk who, as in Lisbon, seem driven to avoid roundabout solutions to traffic problems.