For drivers with the urge to merge, more lanes make it easier

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

November 21, 1994

Motorists face few perils more terrifying than the high-speed merge.

We loathe drivers who accelerate to keep other drivers from merging in front of them. Worse, you may run into, literally, the timid types who won't merge until there's an opening the size of a Mack truck fleet.

So it was with tremendous sympathy that Intrepid Commuter learned of the plight of Karen L. Parkent, a Bowleys Quarters resident who has the misfortune of commuting on the Beltway at the Southeast Boulevard (Route 702) interchange.

Ms. Parkent's complaint is this. She travels from eastbound Pulaski Highway (U.S. 40) to the Beltway to Route 702. In a relatively short space, she must merge twice, and the experience scares her.

"Before someone (like me) gets hurt or killed, I would like to know the proper (legal) and best way to enter 702 to Essex from the ramp coming up from Pulaski Highway," she writes. "Relying on the kindness/courtesy of rush-hour drivers to let us merge unfortunately doesn't seem to be a viable alternative anymore."

This is no ordinary merge situation. The Beltway is just two lanes in this section so merge opportunities are limited.

Ms. Parkent's route also greatly complicates matters. The Route 702 exit from the Beltway is on the left lane. Merging from Pulaski Highway onto the Beltway puts her in the right lane. She has just 800 feet -- about 12 seconds -- to move from right to left.

"I suppose that I am not the only chicken who has gone to Essex via Sparrows Point, choosing rather to be forced onto the ramp than to fight to continue on to 702," she writes.

Our faithful reader also asks that the State Highway Administration reorient traffic to allow both lanes of I-695 to exit at Route 702 and leave a single lane of traffic to continue on the Beltway.

We immediately sought the counsel of Darrell Wiles, the oft-quoted but hard-to-pin-down traffic engineering legend with the State Highway Administration. He studied the situation at our request and his conclusions should give Ms. Parkent some comfort.

First, he reminds us, this section of the Beltway has been under construction for almost a year, a condition that may have aggravated the merge problem. The good news is that it's all part of an $11 million project to widen the 1.5 miles from Interstate 95 to Route 702 from two to three lanes. Thus, by next fall the merge opportunities will be greatly enhanced. More lanes mean more empty spaces.

But the SHA has nixed Ms. Parkent's proposal to give Route 702 more lanes than the Beltway. A recent count of traffic found more cars choose the Beltway than Route 702 at that point, by a 4-3 ratio.

"When there is a problem in the tunnels, traffic is diverted to the east side of the Beltway," Mr. Wiles points out. "It would make no sense to reduce the Beltway to one lane."

Another potential solution is to close the exit from eastbound Pulaski to the Beltway's inner loop. Traffic would instead be directed to make a left turn onto the ramp from westbound Pulaski to the Beltway. That would give traffic several hundred feet to prepare to make the merge to Route 702.

Mr. Wiles says that may be considered if the widening offers no relief, but he questions whether motorists would be that thrilled with having to wait in line on Pulaski to make the left turn.

"No matter what we do, you still have to make a merge in a short distance," he says.

I-70 exit merits some advertisement

Picture yourself as an out-of-town driver desperate to get out of Columbia.

Perhaps you have a phobia about streets named Hobbits Old Shoes and Fragrant Glen Meadows Glade or maybe it's just a brie allergy acting up. Whatever the reason, you're headed north on Route 29.

You see a sign advertising U.S. 40 to Baltimore. Naturally, you get in that lane so you can reach the Beltway.

And, of course, you'd be wrong.

The problem, a Sundial caller says, is that there is no sign before you reach the U.S. 40 exit that indicates the possibility of taking Interstate 70. (Note to the ill-informed: I-70 is the fastest route to I-695. Take U.S. 40 and you'll end up in Ellicott City.)

"If you do not know the area or it is unfamiliar, you have no way of knowing this and you would miss it," the caller says. "My point is I think a sign or something should be put up to indicate how to pick up I-70."

The logic seemed unassailable so Intrepid Commuter confronted the State Highway Administration's assistant district engineer for traffic in Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties.

He caved immediately.

"We used to have a sign just north of Route 103 which said 'I-70 Frederick/Baltimore 2 Miles,' " Gene Straub says.

"That sign was removed eight months ago due to construction at the Route 29/Route 103 interchange," he adds.

At our urging, Mr. Straub agreed to install a temporary sign at that same location to give drivers some advance notice. It's expected to be in place in about a month. A permanent sign should be in place next spring.

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