The Road Rolls On, Always Jammed

COMMENT

February 21, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

In 1899, state officials conducted their first thorough scientific survey of Maryland's roads. They proclaimed Carroll County's roads in bad shape.

Almost a century later, the county's roads are in much better condition, but they remain inadequate for the volume of traffic they are carrying.

When the 1899 study commission, headed by state geologist William B. Clark, catalogued Maryland's roads, it said Carroll County had 50 miles of road paved with a hard surface, mostly crushed limestone and granite.

Compared to roads in southern Maryland, which were made of clay and became quagmires after every rain, or those on the Eastern Shore, which were sand topped with oyster shells, Carroll's roads looked good, but still were judged to be poor.

As a result of the Clark Commission's findings, the General Assembly and Gov. Austin Lane Crothers formed a state roads commission in 1908. The new organization was given the responsibility of building a state highway system. It was the first state roads commission in the nation and had the authority to condemn property, buy out the private toll roads, and improve road transportation in the state.

Since then, Carroll has added about 800 miles of paved roads, but a number of them are no longer adequate for the amount of traffic they regularly carry.

One of the worst is Route 30, which runs from the Pennsylvania state line south through Manchester and Hampstead and into Reisterstown in Baltimore County. A scenic two-lane highway, the road is serving as an interstate highway, often full of large tractor-trailers rumbling back and forth from factories and distribution centers in Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Twice a day, Route 30 is full of commuters who live in Pennsylvania and work in the Baltimore region.

The result is a steady stream of cars and trucks, creating noise, pollution and congestion in what used to be bucolic little towns. Since Route 30 also serves as Main Street in Hampstead and Manchester, the traffic has severely eroded the towns' quality of life.

For 30 years, highway engineers and politicians have been talking about constructing a bypass around Hampstead and Manchester, but the road is no closer to construction today than it was three decades ago.

Engineering studies are still under way, but no money has been allocated for the construction of the bypass.

Aggravated by the delay, some county planners and politicians are thinking of alternatives. Commissioner Donald I. Dell has been pushing the idea of extending Interstate 795 from northwest Baltimore County into Carroll. He would like to see it run parallel to Route 140 and intersect with Route 97 north of the Carroll County Regional Airport.

Mr. Dell believes the interstate extension would alleviate much of the congestion on Routes 30 and 140. He also thinks that such a transportation link would bring industry and business into Carroll. At this point, the extension of I-795 is nothing more than an interesting concept. But constructing it or any other major new roads raises a number of interesting issues.

Most citizens see new roads as short-term solutions to traffic problems, but roads actually have long-range impact on shaping future development. Any major road construction program in Carroll must also address the fact that these roads will have a permanent impact on the county that goes beyond commuting times.

Looking at past experience, new and wider roads seem to have only a temporary impact on alleviating traffic congestion. There seems to be an inexorable truth about road construction: Drivers abhor a vacuum and traffic becomes congested on a new road in half the time the experts project.

No matter how many lanes are added to the Baltimore Beltway or to Interstate 95 north of Baltimore, for example, these highways get packed with automobiles and trucks, and traffic invariably slows to a crawl during rush hours. Even during non-peak times, those roads carry heavy volumes of traffic.

Any road building -- whether extending I-795 or constructing the Hampstead bypass -- will have only a temporary impact on alleviating rush hour traffic, particularly if people from Carroll and Pennsylvania continue to commute to jobs outside the county.

Construction of either road is going to chew up land that is now being farmed. Wherever there are exits, there will be development. If I-795 were constructed between Route 140 and Route 30, the farmland between those two roads would certainly be turned into subdivisions, shopping centers and business districts.

There could be one benefit to building such a highway. Construction of I-795 would accelerate the urbanization of the land along the road. If development were concentrated on the eastern side of the county, the road might actually serve to protect the farmland in the western half of the county.

When we are stuck in slow-moving traffic, it is comforting to think that if the road were just one lane wider, we might be speeding to our destination. But road-building has greater implications than just quicker travel.

Even though we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Clark Commission study, we don't seem to be any closer to solving our highway transportation problems.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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