Road plan strives to keep pace with cars

Upgrade to unburden Beltway feeder route

May 15, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Almost 40 years ago, Gov. J. Millard Tawes stood on a strip of pavement flanked by fields and farms just west of Reisterstown Road, and snipped a ribbon that opened a 32.8-mile section of the Baltimore Beltway.

Shopping centers and housing developments now fill those fields, creating a snarl of traffic where Reisterstown Road connects with the highway. With more homes and stores on the way -- "For Sale" signs dot the remaining vacant lots -- the lines of idling cars could get longer.

But state officials hope to ease that congestion by giving a face lift to the interchange where Baltimore drivers got their first lesson in Beltway driving. Construction should begin this fall on a interchange design called an "urban diamond," the first of its kind on the Beltway.

The $14 million project is the latest effort to improve traffic flow on Interstate 695, the heart of the area's commuter plan. The Beltway, one of the first loops around a U.S. city, has been receiving upgrades almost from the beginning to keep pace with growing suburbs, and fixing troubled interchanges is as important as adding lanes, transportation experts say.

While congestion can be caused by having too few lanes, most bottlenecks occur at interchanges, "the decision-making areas," says Tom Hicks, director of traffic and safety with the State Highway Administration. Indecisiveness leads to slowing, and bad decisions lead to accidents.

In 1998 -- the most recent year for which statistics are available -- 66 accidents occurred at the Reisterstown Road interchange and its approaches.

Built to last 20 years, the interchange has been in use much longer, with only minor adjustments. But while the overpass is considered structurally safe, highway officials say it is in poor condition and that the cost of maintaining it is high. Highway engineers and commuters say repairs are overdue.

Ellie Cohen, who lives in Owings Mills, gave up driving on the Beltway to her job at development company Greenebaum and Rose Associates in Pikesville because traffic at the interchange became unbearable.

"The time I saved taking the highway was used up when I had to exit to flip back onto Reisterstown Road," she says. Instead, she drives to work down Reisterstown Road from her home.

Reisterstown Road's six-lane pass over the Beltway is bounded by a men's apparel store, three hotels and a medical office complex, presenting a challenge to engineers and builders who set out to rebuild the road traveled by about 50,000 vehicles a day.

The construction "is not going to be a pretty picture," says Nancy Garfinkel, director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.

Work on the Beltway rarely is. Work is in progress on the Beltway's Dulaney Valley and Providence Road interchanges to accommodate a widening on the north side of the Beltway from six to as many as 10 lanes. Designers also plan to widen the Beltway's southwest side to ease bottlenecks that trouble rush-hour commuters traveling between Owings Mills and Arbutus.

In planning the new Reisterstown Road interchange, engineers decided that simply building a new overpass would not be sufficient to handle traffic.

The number of cars on the road has grown with the construction of homes and businesses along Reisterstown Road. Since 1990, more than 1,400 homes have been built in the area between Old Court Road and Owings Mills Boulevard, and between Interstate 795 and Park Heights Avenue, according to Baltimore County planners. In roughly the same area, 37 businesses have been built since 1991. Reisterstown Road alone boasts large new housing projects such as Avalon and shopping centers such as Festival at Woodholme.

With those new homes and stores, the number of cars on Reisterstown Road near the Beltway has jumped from 29,800 vehicles a day in 1985 to 51,400 in 1999, highway officials say. For several years, the highway administration has rated the interchange's level of service as an F, which is the lowest rating possible. Nick Mangione Jr., general manager of the Pikesville Hilton Hotel, which is next to the interchange, says, "It's very difficult for our guests and customers to get in and out of the hotel."

Traffic not only backs up on Reisterstown Road to get on the Beltway, it also backs up on the highway to get onto Reisterstown Road during rush hour. "There is a lot of through traffic and a lot of lo- cal traffic," says Randall Scott, assistant district engineer for the highway administration.

The first proposal was to widen Reisterstown Road over the Beltway, but that option would have required the state to take several properties, including the site of apparel retailer the Men's Wearhouse. Although the interchange lies about a mile from downtown Pikesville, SHA officials were concerned about the project's impact on an area targeted for revitalization. No one at the agency relished the thought of condemning a large parcel of land to rebuild the intersection.

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