Perhaps it's just pre-election caution, but the Town Commissioners of Bel Air have put the idea of a Route 22 bypass through the Howard Park community on long-term hold. Not enough money, too much public opposition.
The State Highway Administration's willing to take it off the board, too, because it doesn't have the money for the project. The official state explanation, heard for the first time since the issue was seriously revisited about a year ago, is that the agency does not believe in mixed marriages of state and town thoroughfares.
The decision will make a lot of residents around Plumtree Park happy, as they have been dealing with the uncertainty of a four-lane divided community for so long.
But it will continue the traffic bottleneck through the town center and along the Baltimore Pike, which is one of the worst stretches of stop-and-go traffic in the state of Maryland.
(Town residents who raise the specter of drive-by shootings from motorists speeding through their community on the bypass are hallucinating. Even with the Route 22 bypass, most drivers would find it hard to outrace the average jogger.)
Some day, a bypass or a "beltway" will have to be built to ease the knot of vehicles through the county seat. Not this year, and not through Howard Park. But eventually traffic must be diverted if Bel Air is to resolve the problems of vehicle congestion that have mushroomed over the years by a lack of firm controls on development.
A motorist can easily take 15 minutes to run the gauntlet of dogleg turns, backed up left-turn lanes, strip-shopping center shoppers pulling on and off the highway, and six-way stoplights to get from Bel Air Park to cross Tollgate Road at last.
It's almost as bad traveling the other direction, especially with the utility trucks forever parked next to the county office building.
The state's new project to resurface and widen Route 22, a/k/a Churchville Road, from two lanes to four and five will create more delays and backups out to Fountain Green Road for a time -- and then encourage a bigger flood of cars into the Bel Air gridlock when construction is finished in another two years.
The situation is not going to get any better. Bel Air's planning director, Carol Diebel, points out that the county has approved construction of 3,000 more housing units around the town. That doesn't include additional traffic that is generated from the Churchville area that needs to pass through Bel Air when headed south and west; that area grew significantly as Harford County's population increased by a third over the past decade.
The Bel Air town commissioners rekindled the controversial three-block-long bypass issue last March, hiring a consultant to review several past east-west traffic studies.
The commissioners have long avoided taking a stand on the subject, even though the proposal has kicked around for almost three decades. When the idea has been revisited periodically, town officials have backed down under concerted citizen protests.
Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, a former Bel Air commissioner, has openly opposed the Route 22 extension plan in favor of finding another way to construct an east-west bypass of the town. The disruption of the community would be too great, she says.
The plan, which is now estimated to cost as much as $500,000, would remove the Route 22 barrier at Hays Street and funnel traffic straight onto George Street and into Boulton Avenue to Tollgate Road by the Harford Mall.
The bypass was placed in Bel Air's comprehensive plan in 1968 after a traffic consultant study came up with the idea a couple years earlier. It was again included in the 1986 town plan.
As traffic problems increased in the county seat, Bel Air and Harford formed a working group of citizens and officials to consider long-term solutions.
Del. Mary Louise Preis (District 35 Democrat), who heads the task force, believes further study is needed to develop &r responsible proposals. And that means more money, which isn't in hand.
Among the other ideas being weighed are an extension of West MacPhail Road between Route 924 and Route 24, dissecting the Homestead and Wakefield Elementary schools' joint campus, and a northern connection of Route 543 with the U.S. 1 Bel Air Bypass.
With a municipal election coming up March 14, and 11 people contending for three seats on the board of commissioners, no candidate is going to endorse any of these controversial proposals. Nor are the two incumbents whose terms do not expire this year. Community associations. which oppose the idea, are particularly important in winning these low-turnout town elections.
"We've really come to the conclusion that we're not able to do it now or in the foreseeable future," concluded William McFaul, the town administrator, at a recent meeting of town officials and community associations to discuss the status of the bypass. Since he is not an elected official, Mr. McFaul's statement should have laid to rest the fears of Howard Park for the present.
But the idea may well resurface as answers to Bel Air traffic questions become more difficult, as each community within the town struggles to avoid the disruption of new bypass roads and yet to find a solution to an ever-worsening transportation problem.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.