The roads more traveled

Commuting: As Howard County's population expands, cars flood rural roads, causing frustration and accidents.

November 10, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Just west of Columbia the expansive University of Maryland research farm marks the start of rural western Howard County, with its rolling fields, herds of cattle, tall white silos and narrow, two-lane roads.

If only it weren't for the traffic jams.

Cars backed up 20 deep are as much a part of the scenery during rush hours as crops and cows at a small crossroads near the farm where Homewood Road meets Sheppard Lane and Folly Quarter Road.

Across the Baltimore region, a combination of sprawling development and overflow from already crowded interstates have turned narrow, winding byways such as Folly Quarter into traffic tangles, causing frustration, delays and a rising tide of deadly accidents.

"If I'm not at the stop sign by 7:45 ... I could be backed up all the way to the entrance of the farm," which is 200 yards away, said Jon Traunfeld, who works near the intersection at the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center. In his years at the office since 1994, Traunfeld, who commutes from Ellicott City, has seen traffic mushroom "on these so-called back roads."

Sharon Russell, who also works at the information center, dodges waves of traffic as parents drop children off at nearby Glenelg Country School.

"The intersection is extremely dangerous because the traffic is so heavy nine months out of the year," she said. "Each year it has gotten worse."

Drivers seeking shortcuts are a factor in the buildup at the crossroads, said James Irvin, director of public works for Howard County. "It is ... starting to be used as an alternative to Route 29, Route 40 and Route 70," he said.

People always try to make the shortest time between two points, Irvin said. "It's the common impact on secondary road systems."

Cutting through

It is not just county residents, said Irvin, but drivers from Carroll County and other northern areas cutting through to jobs in Baltimore, Washington and their suburbs.

Other rural neighborhoods also are feeling overloaded as local populations swell and growing numbers of commuters and commercial drivers -- frustrated by backups on the region's major freeways -- take off cross-country in search of speedier routes.

Route 108 in western Howard County has become a shortcut for commercial trucks heading southwest into Montgomery County. That bunches up traffic at Route 216 (which becomes Highland Road on the west side of the intersection), according to resident Dan O'Leary.

"They are two-lane, rural-type roads that have not been improved in years," said O'Leary, who is working with neighbors to address development concerns at the Highland crossroads. But traffic, especially trucks, speed on the open stretches, creating dangerous situations. They also block cars from turning at the intersection, leading to backups of 300 yards or more.

Two routes

And don't even get residents started on Routes 97 and 32, which are largely two-lane roads through fields and forests even as they serve as increasingly frenetic north-south pathways for commuters and commercial vehicles in western Howard.

"Routes 97 and 32 have horrible congestion," said Barbara Cook, who owns a farm near Lisbon. She and other residents on Daisy Road have rallied against a proposal to widen and straighten their rural thoroughfare because, among other issues, they fear it might become a shortcut for cars going from Route 97 to Interstate 70.

State and county proposals to widen Route 32 have been discussed for several years as traffic doubled since 1990 and the accident rate rose last year 25 percent above the country's average.

Some people believe adding lanes to Route 32 is the only way to alleviate the congestion, noise and danger that are common on the road between Clarksville and West Friendship. But many are reluctant to invite more traffic and development to the area.

The rural jams are reflected in a disheartening statistic -- the soaring amounts of time people are spending in their cars on the way to and from their jobs.

An annual study by the Texas Transportation Institute found the average city driver spent 62 hours sitting in traffic in 2000, compared with 16 hours in 1982. Drivers in Baltimore averaged 50 hours a year in rush-hour traffic.

The rural traffic is more than an inconvenience.

A federal General Accounting Office report found that local rural roads had the highest rate of deadly accidents, with more than six times the rate on urban interstates.

Heavier traffic adds danger to places where speeding and narrow, winding roads are already a hazard, said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.

One clear reason there are more cars on rural roads is that there are more people moving to rural areas, and they are driving a lot.

Between 1990 and 2000, miles of available highway in the Baltimore area grew by about 11 percent, while the region's population grew by 9 percent, according to the Texas Transportation Institute study. But the study also found that miles traveled in vehicles grew by about 22 percent.

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