Missing lane markers create mystery for I-83, Beltway motorists

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

April 18, 1994

There's something weird going on in Timonium.

OK, so that's not such a big surprise. Let's just say Timoniuhas become even stranger than usual.

Thanks to alert reader Aaron Mall of Pikesville, Intrepid Commuter has discovered a shocking situation.

Someone has stolen the little white lines from some of Baltimore County's busiest highways!

That's right. Missing in action are the lane markers along Interstate 83 around Timonium as well as along the Beltway at Perring Parkway.

Where you could once find white dashes, now you see just holes -- rectangular holes the exact size of the dashes and about an inch deep.

Were they deliberately taken? Did Martians land and demand them? Did the paint have self-destructive properties?

"I'd like to know why on the Beltway and on I-83 north of the Beltway, the highway seems to be deteriorating worse underneath where the white lines are painted than in any other area," Mr. Mall says.

We left no stone, nor bit of asphalt, unturned in our vigorous investigation into this matter. Frankly, we just placed a call to the State Highway Administration, but it wasn't as if the agency answered on the first ring.

As it happens, the SHA folks have been puzzling over this phenomenon for weeks. They've even been talking to engineers from other states to compare notes.

They aren't 100 percent positive, but here's their leading theory:

The lines in question were not painted. They are made from a thermal plastic that is heated to 400 degrees or more and plastered on top of the road. And the highway is not made of ordinary asphalt. It was resurfaced with "popcorn" mix, a porous form of asphalt that became popular in the 1980s but has proved to lack durability.

The thermal plastic, which is about one-sixteenth of an inch thick, is a lot longer-lasting than paint and often is used on well-traveled highways such as the Beltway. But here's the rub: Because it's thicker than paint, the blades of snowplows may be catching on the markings.

"The thermal plastic adheres [to popcorn mix] so well that the snow plow will pull the pavement up," says SHA spokesman Chuck Brown.

The SHA no longer uses popcorn mix, and to prevent the problem from happening again, contractors will be instructed to spray-paint the plastic lines. Spray-painting tapers the edges so a snowplow blade won't pull on them.

Pa. reader wants consistent signs

A comes before B except when traveling south, west or counter-clockwise.

Ever noticed that curiosity on Maryland highway signs? Faithful reader John Sampson White finds it rather annoying.

AIn a recent letter, the Stewartstown, Pa., resident chastises the state for reversing the letters half the time. When he's headed north on a Maryland interstate, everything's normal, but when driving south, he comes across Exit 12B before he reaches 12A.

"It makes no sense," he writes. "These ramps are for the convenience of the traffic flowing in a particular direction so they do not have to conform to the lettering of those for traffic going in the opposite direction."

Actually, you can find the same thing on east-west highways and on the Beltway, where B follows A on the inner loop, but not the outer loop.

And if you think about it, it sort of makes sense.

Mr. Brown, the SHA spokesman, says Maryland follows the national standard, which is to make exits consistent with direction. No matter whether you're driving north or south on Interstate 95, Exit 35A will always take you east on Route 216 toward downtown Laurel.

"If it wasn't that way, Big Al's Used Cars would have to say, 'Take Exit 12A on the outer loop and 12B on the inner loop,' " Mr. Brown says.

On a related topic, Mr. White is not too keen on Beltway directional signs. When traveling north on Interstate 97, the signs steer him toward "I-695 West" to Towson.

"I hope that I'm going 'north' for that is my destination and that is also the eventual direction that I-695 will take me," he writes. "For the sign to have both Towson and west on it is ludicrous."

Mr. White recommends that the direction on the signs be eliminated, leaving only the most significant destination, such as major cities.

On this, we disagree. The Beltway is circular and therefore no direction is entirely accurate.

Darrell Wiles, SHA assistant district engineer for traffic in Baltimore and Harford counties, says the directional markers benefit out-of-towners most of all. The options are as clearly defined as possible.

If you look on the map, the choices from I-97 are pretty nearly east or west. From Catonsville or Essex, the choices are nearly north-south. Around Towson at the top of the Beltway, it's east-west again.

"One of the worst things you can do, especially on high-speed roads, is not give a clearly defined choice," Mr. Wiles says. "You have to expect that on a beltway, the road will eventually change directions."

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