Man with long memory brings SHA up short on missing signs


November 28, 1994

Either a thief or an incompetent is loose on the Beltway.

Intrepid Commuter knows what you're thinking.

"What? Only one?"

But we have uncovered a scandal sitting right on the outer loop of Interstate 695. At least it was sitting along the Beltway when last we looked.

We're speaking, of course, of the "Case of the Missing Signs," brought to our attention recently by city resident Wilson P. McManus. With just one letter, he has demonstrated greater perceptiveness than all the employees of the State Highway Administration (SHA).

"If my memory serves me correctly, there used to be signs stating, 'Begin Truck Lane Control,' and/or 'No Trucks Left Lane' on the median wall somewhere in the vicinity of the overpass over the Jones Falls Expressway," Mr. McManus writes.

"There is presently a sign stating, 'No Trucks Left Lane,' in the vicinity of the Falls Road overpass. The 'End Truck Lane Control' sign appears shortly after Greenspring Avenue."

"It appears that the first sign or signs were removed," Mr. McManus writes. "If the signs are in fact missing, their restoration would probably help the flow of traffic in that area."

After considerable research, SHA officials confirmed our correspondent's worst fears. There are, indeed, two signs missing, and they may have been missing for years.

Darrell Wiles, the SHA's traffic potentate for Baltimore County, says the truck restriction extends 1.7 miles from Falls Road to Greenspring Avenue. It's there because the grade is so steep and long that most trucks can't maintain speed.

Sometime between 1992, when Beltway signs were last surveyed, and now, two signs were removed either by a thief (a somewhat unlikely scenario since the 4-foot-by-6-foot signs don't seem particularly desirable) or by a maintenance crew (if, for instance, the signs were damaged in traffic accidents).

The first of the signs warned that the no-truck lane was one-quarter mile ahead and was located, as Mr. McManus points out, by the JFX bridge. The second was midway through the no-truck lane.

"I don't know how they disappeared or why," Mr. Wiles says. "Critical signs like stop signs, we're a little more alert to. If not for Mr. McManus, we might not have caught this, particularly because some signs were still there."

Mr. Wiles promises to have new signs in place within 30 days.

Incidentally, there is one other no-truck lane on the Beltway. It's the 3-mile-long inner loop section between Interstate 95 and U.S. 40, also known as the Wilkens Avenue hill.

As far as we know, it still has all its signs.

Difficulty at dawn tests driver patience

It's 5:30 a.m., and Joe the truck driver is waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Being a man of action, Joe is none too happy about this. He is stuck at the traffic signal at Rolling Road and Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville.

This early in the morning there is nobody else around, so you can imagine his frustration. The perishable items back in the refrigerated trailer are not getting any fresher.

"It's ridiculous to sit there and wait for a 30-second traffic light," Joe says.

Coincidentally, the first seven letters of ridiculous form the word "ridicule" -- sort of. That brought to mind Baltimore County's Division of Traffic Engineering.

Just kidding.

Anyway, Intrepid Commuter contacted Steve Weber, our main man for Baltimore County traffic. He knew instantly what Joe was talking about. In fact, he's known about this problem for months.

It seems at least one of the traffic sensors at the Rolling Road signal is not functioning. Faithful readers will recall that sensors, or "loop detectors," can tell when traffic is sitting at the light.

These detectors are little more than loops of wire buried in the pavement. A small electrical current running through the loop creates a magnetic field. A car, or any large metal mass, disrupts the field. A computer inside the signal control box registers that fact, and the signal's cycle may be adjusted.

But when a signal loses one or more loops, it becomes blind. Under those circumstances, it reverts to a standard program. In this case, the program is the same all day long whether it's 5:30 a.m. or rush hour.

Now, the bad news. While Mr. Weber is aware of the problem, it may be weeks before it's solved.

It seems there's this lack of resources in Baltimore County government these days. The traffic division has a backlog of about 60 sensors that need to be repaired. Repairs are on a first-come, first-served basis. Sensors cost about $2,000 to replace.

"We can't quite keep up with the number of failures," Mr. Weber says. "This one has been out for about three months."

Mr. Weber notes that things have been worse. Five years ago, the backlog was so bad the county had to hire a private company to wipe out a backlog of more than 100 sensors.

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