Curbs on BW Parkway are there simply to look nice


February 07, 1994

Why are there curbs on the BW Parkway?

They're no big deal on a suburban street, but when driving at 55 mph, curbs can be more than a little bit intimidating to the average motorist.

So there's some big benefit to having them on a highway, right?


Intrepid Commuter today presents the history of curbs on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a lesson in how the federal government spends your money when you're paying minimal attention.

First, a little background.

The Baltimore-Washington Parkway was opened 40 years ago as a 29-mile scenic highway between the two cities. The 18-mile portion from Washington, D.C., to Fort Meade is managed by the National Park Service. The remainder, called Interstate 295, comes under the jurisdiction of Maryland's State Highway Administration.

The Maryland portion has no curbs.

The federal portion didn't originally have curbs.

Most interstate highways have no curbs.

But beginning in 1987, the federal government started placing curbs along the parkway as part of a massive rehabilitation of the four-lane highway.

For an explanation, we turned to the Federal Highway Administration, which is responsible for the project. Its officials tell us that the curbs (and gutters) were added simply because they look good.

That's right. It was an aesthetic decision.

Eduardo Calderon, head of the Highway Administration office in Sterling, Va., where the rehabilitation of the parkway is supervised, said the curbs were added to create a "parkway setting" at the request of the park service.

"It's like a picture you want to frame," he said. "It delineates your pages, essentially."

Mr. Calderon notes that the curbs are only 3 1/2 inches tall and slanted at a 45-degree angle so that they can be safely mounted by cars. They are also buffered by paved shoulders: 3 feet wide at the median and 8 feet wide on the side of the highway.

N. Vivian Hanna, an administration spokeswoman, said the curbs give the parkway a distinctive feel quite different from Interstate 95. She compares them with the timber rails along the Colonial Parkway near Williamsburg, Va., or the stone walls along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

The curbs cost $7 per linear foot, she said. For all 18 miles, that amounts to $2.66 million, not exactly small change.

Ironically, despite the talk of parks and parkways, engineers have chosen an environmentally unfriendly structure in curbs.

Generally, says Dr. Michael Hirshfield, head scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it's better to avoid concrete impediments like curbs so that storm water can filter naturally through a grassy strip alongside the road.

"But even beyond that, I can't say I find curbs aesthetically attractive," Dr. Hirshfield says.

Like them or not, the curbs are here to stay. The federal government has already spent $60 million to $70 million on the rehabilitation of the parkway, which is more than half finished, Mr. Calderon says.

Readers strike, city capitulates

Faithful readers will be happy to learn they have struck two more blows for safe city intersections.

Two months ago, we received a letter from Lisa Bull complaining about Harford Road and Echodale Avenue in the community of Waltherson. Ms. Bull included one of the best handmade maps to cross our desk. More importantly, she raised a safety issue.

Motorists heading north on Harford and turning west (left) on Echodale can't see oncoming traffic if there's a southbound driver turning left (east) on Echodale. She suggested the problem would be remedied if the city added left-turn lanes.

Guess what? After weeks of study, Baltimore's public works department has decided to make the change. The left-turn lanes should be in place by the end of the month, says Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the department.

On another topic, a reader called to tell us that the "No Turn On Red" sign on Joh Avenue at Caton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore has been missing for several months. We notified the public works department, and a new one was installed Thursday.

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