State rejects traffic plan on Route 175 'Dispersed movement' design called too risky for road

Solution may take years

Columbia Crossing opening likely to increase congestion

September 27, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

State engineers have rejected Howard County's controversial plan to build two novel "dispersed movement" intersections along Route 175 -- the latest twist in a community quandary over how to ease congestion around Snowden River Parkway affordably.

The state's decision could cost Howard County more than $12 million if state officials recommend a cloverleaf-style overpass in the area. A long-term solution is perhaps years away.

Meanwhile, traffic is expected to worsen at Route 175's intersections with Snowden River and Dobbin Road next month with the opening Columbia Crossing, a warehouse-style retail center that features a Target store the size of three football fields.

The state's decision, which is binding because Route 175 is a state road, drew mixed reactions after being made public Wednesday night during a meeting of a task force studying the area's traffic problems.

East Columbia community leaders were elated. They still desire the more expensive overpass-style intersection for Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway, which they say originally was promised by county officials when they approved plans for the Columbia Crossing shopping center.

But county and private engineers who designed the less expensive dispersed movement intersection maintained the plan would have worked at both Snowden River Parkway and Dobbin Road.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who approved the innovative design earlier this year in his original 1997 fiscal budget, said state officials should have given the design more evaluation.

But in an interview yesterday, he acknowledged his doubts about dispersed movement. "I don't want to put something in there that doesn't work," Ecker said. "I don't know if it would work or not work."

The dispersed movement design employs a series of timed traffic signals stationed several hundred feet in front of the intersection. The signals route left-turning cars across oncoming lanes and into new access roads. Dispersed movement is used at only one intersection in the nation, a lightly traveled entrance to a small college in Long Island.

The Route 175 intersections, on the other hand, must handle more traffic and more turning movements.

Already, 5,664 vehicles pass through the intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway during the peak hour of evening traffic, according to traffic studies done last year by county engineers.

By 2003, an additional 2,503 vehicles will pass through the intersection during the evening rush hour, according to estimates by the Rouse Co., which is developing Columbia Crossing.

With dispersed movement no longer in play, county and state engineers will consider five remaining options. Four of the options call for cloverleaf- or diamond-style overpasses at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway, which will cost from $13 million to $17.5 million, said Ron Lepson, chief of Howard County's engineering department.

The fifth option, much less expensive, would add more lanes at Snowden River Parkway.

Meanwhile, the county plans to widen Route 175 to three lanes west of the Snowden River intersection, to help alleviate congestion at the Dobbin Road intersection, Lepson said. In addition, Rouse is building another left-turn lane at Dobbin Road.

Dispersed movement for both the Snowden River Parkway and Dobbin River intersections was expected to cost about $4.6 million, according to county budget documents.

The designs were the work of Ed Lieberman, an internationally known transportation engineer from Long Island, and Ed Walter, the county's chief traffic engineer who has a master's degree in civil engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Using Lieberman's traffic simulation computer model, they concluded that dispersed movement could significantly improve traffic flow in the area.

But when their plans were made public earlier this year, they were met with skepticism from community activists, state engineers and state legislators who represent Columbia.

Earlier this month, top officials in the State Highway Administration met and rejected the designs for Route 175, saying the plans were too risky for such a busy road.

"They just felt it should be tried somewhere else initially," said Gene Straub, a state highway official.

Community activists agreed.

"Relief, that is what I feel," Sara Uphouse, the Long Reach Village manager, said yesterday. "I've always had major qualms about that intersection design."

Two state legislators who represent Columbia also were pleased.

"Good, good," Del. Shane Pendergrass said.

State Sen. Martin G. Madden said one of the more expensive interchanges ultimately is needed.

"This puts us back on track to what we were originally hoping for," remarked Madden, who said that citizens were promised an overpass two years ago by the county.

"I think it's what the citizens expected," Madden said.

Reached yesterday, the engineers who designed the original plans expressed disappointment.

Dispersed movement "can handle it," Lieberman said from his Long Island office.

Walter, the county traffic engineer, said he was disappointed but declined to elaborate. Earlier, he had expressed concerns that community activists had steered debate away from sound engineering studies.

As Ray Wacks, Howard County budget director, said: "Innovation is getting tough. No one wants to stick their neck out."

The county still is considering dispersed movement for the less-traveled intersection of Snowden River and Broken Land parkways.

Both are county roads, so no state approval is need, officials said yesterday. Lieberman said his final design could be ready by next week and he expects the plan to be approved.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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