Traffic options get 2nd looks

Underpasses and roundabouts seen as Route 140 alternatives

September 19, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The Westminster bypass is dead, killed by Smart Growth, which has breathed new life into intersection designs such as the roundabout, and has revived the specter of mass transit to relieve congestion on Carroll County's main artery.

Not long ago, these were fighting words, but a group created to look for solutions for the congested stretch of Route 140 through Westminster discussed them with warmth rather than heat at its third meeting last week.

The Westminster Working Group rose from the ashes of the bypass, after city representatives learned in January that the governor had decided the bypass would promote sprawl, contrary to his Smart Growth policy, said Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan.

Rather than fight to change the decision, Yowan said, the city and state formed the Westminster Working Group. Its 20 members include state, county and city representatives, the Westminster Fire Department, the Greater Westminster Development Corp., the Church of the Open Door, the Chamber of Commerce, business people, the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, and Carroll Life, a citizens group that had opposed the bypass.

Orange-and-white barrels line the $6 million widening of Route 140, where new lanes have been added from Leidy Road north to the Route 97 split, said Catherine Romero, project manager for the State Highway Administration (SHA). Work on the 2 1/2-mile stretch should be completed this fall.

The widening was accomplished by encroaching on the grass median, state and city officials said, and nothing more can be done without buying private land. To build 1960s-style cloverleaf intersections would wipe out businesses and parking.

Tuesday night's meeting focused on ideas from the group's second meeting in July, when members donned orange vests for a field trip from intersection to intersection through town and came up with ideas such as routing through traffic under the existing road level and eliminating some traffic lights.

Neil Pedersen, SHA's director of planning and preliminary engineering, said those ideas were given to McCormick, Taylor & Associates Inc., a Baltimore engineering company, which presented some preliminary sketches at the meeting.

"We had looked at the three worst intersections: Center Street, Englar Road and Route 97 south," Romero said. "We want to show the working group you can make an improvement, at what cost, and what it would look like."

At each of the three intersections, the engineers put the main road below the surface, separated by retaining walls from lanes at each side for local traffic. They discussed the use of roundabouts or two alternatives -- the "compressed diamond" and the "modified urban diamond" -- that require little land for the intersections above the underpasses at street level.

Such changes could remove about 2,000 vehicles an hour from the commuter traffic at the intersection, according to projections to 2020, said Romero. The cloverleaf was designed for access to high-speed roadways, not for slower local circulation.

The cost to dig and build roundabouts or diamonds at the three intersections would be about $20 million to $25 million each, Romero said.

But Yowan said, "The Westminster bypass was going to cost $250 million. Certainly getting $75 million to fund this is easier. And the bypass would have been 15 to 20 years away."

"I think it's more attractive," he said of the new design. "And it certainly wouldn't do any good if you fixed the road and did away with all the businesses on 140."

James E. Bangerd III, president of Westminster Fire Engine & Hose Company No. 1, said he's a roundabout fan, after being "one of the biggest nay-sayers to the Towson roundabout."

"I've seen what it can do. You don't have the backups you used to have," he said.

The preliminary sketches could knock out Popeye's restaurant, a row of parking spaces at Weis Market, possibly shave part of the Shell station property and affect the Citgo station at Englar Road. But Dana Knight, an engineer with of McCormick Taylor, noted the sketches were "very, very preliminary."

"We can further refine these designs to save these properties," Romero said.

"I'm impressed," said Neil Ridgely, of 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "You guys listened. This is a viable alternative to a bypass."

The group had also asked the Mass Transit Administration (MTA) to update a 1994 study for shuttle bus service to the Owings Mills Metro station, an idea that was killed in 1995 -- after helping spur a write-in campaign against Yowan's re-election.

"We need to look at other alternatives besides highways," Pedersen told the group.

Route 140 now carries about 131,000 vehicles a day and is projected to carry 201,000 by 2020.

"We're very eager to work with Carroll County," said Darlene DeMario, regional planner of the MTA's office of planning and programming. A survey at the Owings Mills Metro showed that 17 percent of its riders come from Carroll.

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