More 'stop' than 'go' at worst intersections Chronic traffic jams signal failure of roads in metro region

May 06, 1998|By This story was reported by Liz Atwood, Dan Thanh Dang, Mary Gail Hare and Jill Hudson, and written by Liz Atwood

Snipping strands of hair in his small Anne Arundel County barber shop, 70-year-old Bill Selby has a picture-window view of suburbia's nightmare traffic.

Morning and evening, a wall of cars and trucks creeps past his shop on the corner of Mountain Road and Lake Shore Drive, one of the region's most congested intersections.

At day's end, when Selby heads home, he's often trapped in his parking lot.

"I just sit there and hope someone lets me out of the lot," says Selby, who has watched traffic increase greatly during 33 years in business at the intersection.

"If they don't, I have to go down Lake Shore, turn around in someone's driveway and then get in a long line of cars to just turn left on Mountain Road, which is right in front of my door.

"It's just too much traffic for one road."

As a result of poor planning and unforeseen lifestyle changes, more and more Marylanders such as Selby are facing knots of traffic.

From Anne Arundel peninsulas to old Baltimore County neighborhoods and sprawling developments in Harford and Carroll counties, motorists are wasting thousands of hours at crossings that cannot handle the swelling volume of cars and trucks.

Maryland has about 200 failing intersections -- junctions where a majority of cars are unable to pass in one cycle of the traffic light during rush hour. And though the state spends about $30 million a year on improvements, the number of F-ratings is increasing.

The problem is so pervasive that- grinding through such bottlenecks -- or finding routes to avoid them -- has become a way of life in Baltimore's suburbs.

"If you go to a party or a social gathering, this is the topic of the day," says Catonsville resident Dick Johnson.

State officials blame the breakdown of area intersections on lifestyle changes that highway planners couldn't have predicted, including America's increasing reliance on automobiles.

Baltimore-area transit ridership has declined from 131 million riders in 1975 to 97.1 million riders in 1997 -- despite the construction of Metro and light rail lines.

Meanwhile, the shift of homes and jobs to the suburbs has increased county-to-county commuting, overwhelming a transportation system built to ferry workers downtown, says State Highway Administration Planning Director Neil J. Pedersen.

And there are more cars per family, thanks to an increase in working women and a tendency for road-weary parents to buy cars for their teen-age children.

In 1980, there was one car for every 2.3 people in the Baltimore area; by 1994 that had changed to one car for every 1.4 people.

But a look at some of the Baltimore suburbs' most congested intersections shows that local officials and residents must share the blame. While the officials have often failed to manage growth, residents have fought highway projects that might have reduced congestion.

Consider Rolling Road in western Baltimore County, which once served farmers who rolled hogsheads of tobacco to the port at Elkridge. Today it's clogged by commuters trying to avoid Beltway backups or seeking a shortcut to Interstate 95.

In the early 1970s, highway officials proposed relieving the congestion by building a bypass along the edge of Patapsco State Park. But residents, alarmed by the environmental threat, successfully lobbied to kill the project.

So Catonsville resident Charles Camp creeps along as he drives his daughter to school. The trip takes 10 minutes in off-peak hours, but twice as long in rush hour. "It's a tobacco road," he says.

Congestion is most acute in fast-growing suburbs such as Harford County.

There, planners and engineers thought they had the answer to heading off problems in the growing communities around Bel Air: a $29 million, four-lane bypass. When government leaders cut the ribbon on the new Route 24 in 1987, they promised commuters a quick drive around the town and easy access to I-95.

But they didn't expect the county population to jump almost 17 percent in only five years -- from 156,300 in 1985 to 182,100 in 1990.

Route 24 -- designed to last 20 years -- was overwhelmed within three. Today, four failing intersections lie along a six-mile stretch.

One of those is the junction of Routes 24 and 924, where three busy north-south connectors merge a half-mile north of the interstate.

At one corner is the Constant Friendship Shopping Center, at another the Constant Friendship Business Park with a Wal-Mart. The Oaks of Harford, Constant Branch and the Pointe housing developments are nearby.

With such development, the quick commute that the new road promised has slowed to a rush-hour crawl, and Route 24, designed for 20,000 vehicles a day, carries about 25,000.

Traffic jams have become a symbol for community activists who say the county has done a poor job managing growth.

"As that road got built, the development was following right behind," says Jan Stinchcomb, chairwoman of the Abingdon-Emmorton-Riverside Community Planning Council. "We're trying to do the planning after the zoning. People are so frustrated."

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