If there is one thing that defines the town of Bel Air, it is the maddening gantlet of gridlock that motorists must endure to reach the offices and downtown businesses in the Harford County seat.
U.S. 1, otherwise known as the Baltimore Pike, is a clogged artery of stoplights and six-way traffic signals, of backed-up left-turning vehicles that stop the main flow of traffic, of utility trucks gleefully closing off yet another lane during rush hours.
"Moving east-west traffic is the major traffic problem facing the town," observes Bel Air Town Administrator William McFaul in painful understatement.
Four major shopping centers, an endless strip of freestanding businesses and over a half-dozen traffic lights installed to facilitate their customer traffic, attract the crowds and slow the flow into downtown, and out of it. There's no reasonable alternative, no other route through the town.
The worst congestion node is the intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 24. Highway surveys show 21,000 cars passing through that crossroads each day. (All of them apparently at the same time, it seems to frustrated motorists ensnared in the stop-and-go web.)
Now blows a promise of relief in a plan to build a bypass that would traverse Tollgate Marketplace and Bel Air Plaza, connecting Tollgate and Atwood roads on the south side of U.S. 1.
Neither the town nor Harford County is going to pay for constructing the new passage. In fact, the county experts say there isn't any traffic problem except for short periods during the work week.
Instead, the Target discount store chain will foot the bill as part of its plan to locate a 117,00-square-foot "micromarketing" outlet in the rear portion of Bel Air Plaza. Access to the new retail establishment will be limited to the new road, minimizing further burden on existing thoroughfares as well as providing a potential bypass for many who sit and wait at Harford County's busiest intersection.
We welcome this development from the private sector, the first in years to attempt to alleviate the worsening traffic congestion entering Bel Air. Instead of installing more stoplights along U.S. 1, as was the past practice, the State Highway Administration is proposing to remove one of them as a way to ease the vehicle flow. Although there is a Bel Air Bypass that skirts the town for U.S. 1, state engineers say there may be better ways to inform motorists of that option. There's no reason not to explore these solutions to the Bel Air bottleneck.