After 42 years, Baltimore traffic signals have lost an old friend


January 24, 1994

A strange thing happened to Baltimore's traffic signals last week.

Joseph E. Miller wasn't looking after them.

The last time that happened was in 1952, before Mr. Miller started working for the city, installing, painting, wiring, trouble-shooting, repairing, changing light bulbs for the

hundreds of signals scattered throughout Baltimore.

Over the years, mayors and City Council members have come and gone.

Lombard and Pratt streets have changed directions several times. Charles became a one-way street.

But Mr. Miller has always been there for his traffic signals.

"It's been a good life," says Mr. Miller, 61, who retired Jan. 13. "It was never boring."

For the past eight years, Mr. Miller was superintendent of traffic signal installation, working mostly behind a desk at the city's traffic signal shop on Poncabird Pass beneath Interstate 95 in East Baltimore.

But for most of his career, he was on the street. There are 1,300 city intersections with traffic lights. Mr. Miller's hands have probably touched them all.

"We have a very good signal system here in Baltimore," he says. PTC "Most people don't realize that. It's something you take for granted."

When Mr. Miller started working for the city, traffic signals ran independently. That means that, even if you were driving on a major thoroughfare, you probably got stopped at half the signals you confronted. Police officers had to be stationed at major intersections at rush hour to keep things moving.

Driving through town is much easier today. The majority of lights are centrally controlled by computer. Major streets are one-way, and lights trip in progression. They can even be adjusted for traffic volume, time of day or special events.

But the actual signals themselves have changed little.

The devices run on regular household current with clear 60-watt bulbs. They either have lenses 8 inches wide, or 12 inches. All are painted the same color: Traffic Signal Yellow.

Fixing them, even changing the bulbs, can be a difficult task when you have to work on a platform 12 feet off the ground in strong winds, sleet or snow.

"When you throw the switch and [the traffic signal] works, you feel pretty good," he says. "Some guy will come up to you and say, 'This is the worst intersection in the City of Baltimore. We really needed that light.'

"They always seem to live around the worst intersection in the City of Baltimore."

Mr. Miller was never seriously hurt on the job. In fact, he's pretty proud of the fact that nobody with the city has ever been killed working on a signal, despite the fact that workers routinely labor around live wires.

His closest call came 25 years ago, when he was sitting at Baltimore and Gay streets on a break. A trailer broke loose from a truck and came barreling down Gay Street straight at him. It stopped within inches of where he sat.

"Needless to say, that scared me a little bit," he says.

As a retirement gift, the guys at the signal shop restored an old-fashioned box signal -- the kind with lights pointing in four directions. The father of four and grandfather of four plans to install it in his home in Baltimore Highlands, assuming that's all right with his wife, Jean.

Left-turn tough at Ring Factory

Mary Lovell would like to light a fire under the State Highway Administration.

Actually, she'd just settle for the light -- a left-turn light, that is.

Ms. Lovell commutes daily from Harford County to Baltimore, driving along heavily traveled Route 24 in Bel Air. Between I-95 and Bel Air, every intersection has a left-turn arrow -- with one exception.

There's no arrow at Ring Factory Road for traffic moving in either direction on Route 24. That's unfortunate, because it's a pretty busy place. Making matters worse, the left-turn lanes are so wide, cars line up alongside each other as they wait to make the turn.

"I have seen five or six cars in the intersection, in both directions, attempting to navigate a left turn," Ms. Lovell writes. "I know there have been accidents at this location, and no doubt left turns have been the cause."

We forwarded Ms. Lovell's concerns to the SHA with prompt results. Turns out they're looking at the situation, too.

Chuck Brown, an SHA spokesman, said the agency began studying traffic patterns along Route 24 between Edgewood and Bel Air late last year.

The increasing traffic volumes on the four-lane divided highway and complaints from local residents spurred the action.

The SHA will be conducting traffic counts, studying the flow of vehicles at all times of day, and looking at accident histories. Officials expect some results in about a month.

Mr. Brown has promised to let us know the results of the study. Please keep checking this space.

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