Owings Mills Boulevard U-turn lane does serve a purpose


May 23, 1994

U-Haul. U-Save. U-Neek.

Intrepid Commuter was recently thumbing through one of our favorite publications, an annual compilation of telephone numbers in the region ("A spellbinder destined to become a softcover classic -- I. Commuter") when we came across the above.

The letter "U" followed by a hyphen was part of the names of 70 Baltimore area businesses.

As much as we respect this innovative approach to English, we were troubled by the omission of our favorite U-word. We refer, of course, to the U-turn.

To illustrate our point, we turn to Owings Mills Boulevard, which has the only U-turn in Baltimore County -- if not the entire state -- controlled by a traffic signal. It's at the turnoff to Reisterstown Road.

PTC Oddly, there has been no clamor to mark this achievement with a plaque. Or historic marker. Or monument. Believe it or not, some people seem not to appreciate the U-turn.

Take for instance, one recent Sundial caller who practically turned on the design of this intersection as unsafe and illogical. He commutes northbound on Owings Mills each morning and rarely sees cars turning in the left lane, which is reserved for U-turns.

"The only people who [use the lane] are those who missed the previous turn or don't know where they're going at all," he says. "It is inconvenient because it backs up the traffic in the center lane for those people going straight."

For an explanation we turned (getting dizzy yet?) to the State Highway Administration, where the folks know a thing or two about turns.

It turns out the U-turn lane does serve a purpose, a fact that may be more obvious in the evening when traffic is busier in that direction.

When the Northwest Expressway (Interstate 795) was opened in 1985, Owings Mills Boulevard was primarily a link to Reisterstown Road. But if you are heading north on Owings Mills from I-795, the first intersection you reach is not Reisterstown Road at all.

Instead, you reach Dolfield Road, a fairly significant residential thoroughfare that connects Owings Mills Boulevard with such communities as Tollgate, Garrison Ridge and Pleasant Fields.

Unfortunately, the I-795 ramp is too close to the intersection of northbound Owings Mills and Dolfield to allow people coming from the expressway to make a left turn. They'd have to cut across two lanes of traffic in too short a distance.

Initially, motorists from I-795 had to head north to Reisterstown and then turn left to get into the neighborhoods served by Dolfield. But as Reisterstown Road traffic increased, SHA officials soon realized that something needed to be done.

So they created the U-turn lane and signal.

"The way it works is that what is normally a left-turn phase actually becomes a U-turn phase," says Robert C. Steffy, an SHA traffic engineer. "Now, anybody from northbound I-795 who wants to go to Tollgate and Garrison Ridge can take that turn."

Smoking banned, so why not drink?

What do you call an organization that prohibits smoking but encourages drinking?

Bonnie Reville calls it hypocrisy.

The rest of us call it Amtrak.

The Lutherville resident was headed to New York on board an Amtrak train on a recent Friday morning. Shortly before 10 a.m., she went to the snack bar and asked for a Bloody Mary mix on the rocks.

"Fine," she says the attendant told her, "but you'll also have to purchase a miniature of vodka to go with it. That'll be $3."

Despite Ms. Reville's protests, the Amtrak employee wouldn't sell the mix by itself. Since she tends not to drink during breakfast hours, Ms. Reville declined the 80-proof liquor.

On the other hand, she really could have used a cigarette. Since last year, however, Amtrak has banned smoking on most of its short-distance trains.

"You know drinking bothers other people, too," Ms. Reville says. "They make smokers feel worse than crack dealers, but alcohol makes them money."

We brought this incident to the attention of Amtrak officials (being careful to place the call before happy hour). They confirmed that it's Amtrak policy not to sell mix without vodka and to offer liquor at all times of day.

However, the attendant should have made an exception "because the customer is always right," says Howard Robertson, an Amtrak spokesman.

"This is a reminder to us that we need to improve service," Mr. Robertson says. "The individual could have sold it and marked it down as juice."

Mr. Robertson says that, while there are occasional problems with drunks on trains, alcohol has never been a big issue with passengers. He says the no-smoking policy has been quite popular with most patrons.

Only some long-distance trains still feature smoking cars.

To get from Baltimore to New York in a smoke-filled environment, the only option is The Cardinal, a tri-weekly train that runs between New York and Chicago by way of Baltimore and Washington.

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