More traffic circles taking shape in state Despite complaints, Howard will have six

August 18, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Driving round and round is giving Mary Talbot a headache.

This month, Talbot and Robert Isom have left the Columbia office of the cleaning service where they work and driven north on Waterloo Road, where they have encountered the source of Talbot's pain -- a traffic circle at the Route 100 interchange in Ellicott City.

The recently completed roundabout is one of a growing number of the traffic-calming devices in the state. Although a number of motorists have complained -- some say the roundabouts are dangerous -- state and local officials say the problem is driver inexperience. More circles are planned.

By the end of the year the state will have 13 -- six in Howard County.

The state's largest is at Allegheny Avenue and York, Dulaney Valley and Joppa roads in Towson. Another circle is being considered at Bellona Avenue and Charles Street.

Though highway officials praise the circles as cost-effective ways to reduce speed and accidents, Talbot and Isom are unconvinced.

"I don't like it," Talbot said as Isom bought two soft drinks on a recent Thursday morning at a gas station south of the Route 100 interchange.

"You have to remember that people are used to squares," she said, referring to the right angles of a typical intersection. "They don't know anything about circles."

Other drivers have echoed Talbot's sentiment, calling the roundabout on Waterloo Road dangerous. It's "an accident waiting to happen," said Jeff Redford, an Ellicott City resident.

But state and local officials say the problem isn't the circle.

"There's an unfamiliarity with them," said Rose Muhlhausen, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration. "I think Maryland drivers need to get used to them and not be afraid of them."

6 roundabouts in Howard

Besides the Route 100 and Waterloo Road site, two roundabouts have opened at Routes 100 and 103. Roundabouts also are planned at Route 100 and Snowden River Parkway, and at Route 94 and Old Frederick Road. The Lisbon circle at Routes 144 and 94, built in 1993, was the state's first.

The other roundabouts are scattered throughout the state, including in Baltimore, Carroll and Washington counties.

Traffic roundabouts gained popularity in England before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Massachusetts and New Jersey. Those states have many traffic circles, but have stopped building them because of increased driver complaints.

New Jersey officials have replaced 25 of 70 circles with traffic lights.

Between 100 feet and 400 feet in diameter, roundabouts operate like a revolving door -- motorists trying to merge into the circle must yield to traffic moving through it.

Besides costing less than traffic signals to maintain, roundabouts force drivers to lower their speeds, and reduce the severity of accidents, Muhlhausen said.

"There are less right angles that would contribute to a collision," she said. "The most you'll get is a sideswipe."

Circles are supposed to keep traffic moving, while a traffic light can frequently cause traffic jams.

"Ideally, it does, but capacity is capacity," said Jeffrey L. Soule, policy director for the Washington-based American Planning Association, a coalition of civic leaders, developers and legislators. "Whether you get a circle or a light, you can still get traffic backed up."

For Ed Hettchen, who lives near Waterloo Road and Elko Drive, watching the cars line up 50-deep to use the circle during the morning and evening rush-hour commutes is a daily occurrence.

"I hear [people honking their horns] all the time," said Hettchen, who co-chairs the Route 104 Civic Association and Associates. "People refuse to yield to them."

That attitude could lead to more accidents, said Redford, who uses the circle daily to drive to work in Baltimore.

'Lost without a stoplight'

"Europeans have a great knowledge of using roundabouts. Americans do not," he said. "We're lost without a stoplight."

Stacy Gornall, who lives in the Brightfield community north of the two circles at Routes 100 and 103, said motorists are too scared to merge.

"It seems to me to be more of a hindrance than a help," she said.

Muhlhausen said part of the problem at Route 100 and Waterloo Road is that traffic that would normally use Route 108 is being detoured onto Waterloo Road for construction.

She pointed to the two roundabouts at Routes 100 and 103, where local homeowners and merchants have praised the circles for slowing commuters who use Route 103 as a thoroughfare between U.S. 1 and U.S. 29.

"The one thing that I do hear that is positive is that it does slow them down," said Michael Fisher, who owns Troy Farms Liquors on Route 103. "We used to see a lot of people coming down at high speeds, but now you have to stop to get through those circles."

Aaron Gartrell, a student at Towson University who was visiting a friend who works at Troy Farms, said motorists with complaints should visit the Towson roundabout.

"The one in Towson is hell because it's so crowded," he said. "I went through these, and it was a piece of cake."

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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