Ritchie Highway: where traffic headaches never subside

Four-lane's history as a worry dates to 1940

September 02, 2001|By Lani Harac | Lani Harac,SUN STAFF

It's always rush hour on Governor Ritchie Highway.

At 8:30 a.m., morning commuters cram the road. In the afternoon, a steady stream of cars crisscross the roadway to get to the shops, car dealerships and other businesses that line both sides. Drivers run yellow lights and anticipate red ones about to turn green. Through it all, horns blast and tires screech as people lean on their brakes.

It doesn't let up until the work day is done, and it will continue to be an obstacle during the Labor Day weekend.

Driving on the mostly four-lane, divided highway has been this way almost since it was built in 1940, and transportation officials say it isn't likely to change. "It's volume. It's access. It's traffic signals. It's capacity, or lack of," said Mike Ulrich, a transportation engineer with the Maryland State Highway Administration.

With five intersections and two traffic signals for each of its 19.2 miles, Ritchie Highway is convenient for the plethora of businesses built along it, but traffic is difficult to control. Of the 14 worst intersections in Anne Arundel County, five are on Ritchie Highway.

Glen Burnie resident John Jayhue LaRue can see the traffic from his house overlooking the highway. He was headed home in May when a police car on the opposite side slammed into his restored 1948 panel truck at almost 60 mph. The police officer had slid across the median, spun around and hit a pole before reaching LaRue, all because the officer was avoiding another car that had pulled in front of the police car.

"You have to be a defensive driver to drive on [Ritchie Highway]," LaRue said. "My wife'll drive it, and I'll be real frustrated even as a passenger."

He lives on the north side of Glen Burnie but goes to the Wal-Mart at the far end of Crain Highway to avoid the traffic, speeding cars and stoplights he says he encounters at a closer Wal-Mart, off Ritchie Highway.

"It's just a frustrating road. Overcrowded, too many stores," he said. "And I don't shop that much."

Kathleen Mae Bennett, a retired county school bus driver who lives in Glen Burnie, has been driving Ritchie Highway for 35 years. She said she has been rear-ended about six times, including once in her bus. It happened again last year at Americana Circle, across from Marley Station mall, while she was in her car.

"Nobody wants to stop for stop signs anymore," she said. "Nobody wants to stop for red lights anymore."

These days, she gets on the road almost every day to do errands and take her grandson to work. She says she drives on it because there's no other way to get where she needs to go, but she is extra cautious.

"You just don't look once. You go back and look again," she said, even if the light is green. "It's just crazy out there. They're just coming right on through [the lights]. They'll cut you off on a dime."

Ritchie Highway has been a jumble of streets and businesses since its inauspicious beginning. Originally called Annapolis Boulevard and later named for Albert Cabell Ritchie, governor from 1929 to 1935, the highway sparked debate about commercialization before it was built.

In 1930, what would later become Ritchie Highway was a freight truck route, a dashed, ruler-straight red line on a State Roads Commission map, heading southeast from Baltimore to Annapolis. State politicians wanted to build a road that would be more direct than the circuitous Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, today's Route 648, to take drivers from the state's largest city to its capital on a scenic byway.

But by the time the highway officially opened in April 1940, three gas stations, a real estate office and a "hall of fame" museum had been given building permits. Just six months later, a legislative report listed 91 structures that had been built along the road, including homes, service stations, funeral homes, a drive-in movie theater, insurance companies and florists.

The wide, grassy median, unmarked lanes and open horizon that was the Ritchie Highway of photographs taken in the 1940s would quickly disappear. By 1955, the median was less than one lane in width, and in 1971 the highway had the distinction of being the most heavily traveled of the so-called unlimited access roads in metropolitan Baltimore, according to a 1972 article in The Evening Sun.

Ulrich says the commercialization and the traffic show no signs of slowing. Interstate 97 - built as an alternate route to reduce traffic congestion on Ritchie Highway - had a positive effect as portions were opened. But since its completion, the number of cars on Route 2 has inched back up.

Last year, average daily traffic on Ritchie Highway ranged from a low of 30,650 vehicles at Eighth Avenue, to a high of 57,000 at College Parkway. More than 1,500 businesses, 46 shopping centers and a number of residences were listed in one directory.

And as development continues to increase, so will the number of access points and lights.

"Ritchie Highway was not controlled access. You own a piece of property along Ritchie Highway, we almost have to give you access," Ulrich said.

Traffic engineers say they do what they can to accommodate the needs of businesses and drivers. Improvements such as re-timing signals to reduce congestion, adding turn lanes and upgrading the signal systems that control lights provide short-term relief - from a few months to several years - at specific intersections. But only so much can be done to alleviate congestion short of reducing the number of vehicles on the road, Ulrich said.

"We're making the best of the type of road that Ritchie Highway was designed to be," he said. "We just keep making spot improvements, trying to reduce the number of incidents. It's a road that's long enough and arterial enough where there are always going to be problem locations."

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