Motorists negotiating the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 24, including nearby Route 924 and Tollgate Road, are not only battling the biggest traffic jam in Harford County - they are putting their safety, even their lives, at risk.
"It's the most congested, most dangerous intersection in the county," said John O'Neill Jr., county administrative officer. As a result, he said, County Executive James M. Harkins has made obtaining funding for improvements to the interchange a top priority in the current legislative session.
Statistics from the State Highway Administration support O'Neill's statement about the safety of the interchange. The area has averaged more than one accident a week for the past three years.
Some are deadly.
Three fatal accidents occurred at the intersection from 1999 through 2001, the latest period for which records are available, according to David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.
He said the vast majority of the accidents are rear-end collisions, the result of stop-and-go traffic.
Buck said there are 68 accidents at the I-95 intersection for every 100 million vehicle-miles traveled. By comparison, he said, 56 accidents for every 100 million vehicle-miles occur at similar intersections statewide.
Buck blamed the number of accidents on the high volume of traffic on I-95, Route 24 and Route 924, also known as Emmorton Road. "There has been a population explosion in that area over the past 10 to 15 years," he said. "It's been unbelievable."
"We don't have any say in the rules on development," Buck said. "We're always playing catch-up," trying to make road improvements to meet the increased demands of motorists.
Tom Ruddy of Abingdon is one of the regulars in the morning and evening rush-hour traffic jams.
He said he normally sits through two traffic light cycles to get through the intersection of Route 24 and Route 924, which is only three-tenths of a mile from the southbound ramp of I-95.
But the worse part, he said, is being forced to stop on the extended exit ramp off I-95 north to Route 24. Asked if it was scary, he responded: "Hell, yeah. You're sitting there and cars are zipping by at 70 or 75 miles per hour. It's nerve-racking."
To avoid the danger, Ruddy said, he frequently passes the long line of cars on the I-95 portion of the ramp and darts into the traffic at the last second as it exits off the interstate.
Improvements are in the works, but they will be expensive and will not happen soon, according to county and state highway officials.
Jeffrey M. Stratmeyer, chief engineer for the county's Department of Public Works, called the situation bad and said the roads weren't designed for the amount of traffic going through that area.
He said there is about 30 percent more traffic at the Route 24 and I-95 intersection than at Route 24 and Business U.S. 1, at the Harford Mall, "which many motorists perceive as the worst traffic jam in the county."
About 5,000 cars pass through the intersection of I-95 and Route 24 each weekday between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. he said. Between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., almost 7,000 cars pass through, he said.
"The big problem is that we have three major roads - Tollgate, Route 924 and Route 24 - feeding into one intersection at I-95. It creates a real bottleneck," Stratmeyer said.
Adding to the problem, he said, is that there are shopping centers on both sides of Route 24 on Tollgate Road and Emmorton Road.
The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Stratmeyer said the current construction of the Box Hill South Corporate Center on Emmorton Road is expected to boost the area's traffic volume.
Stratmeyer said the county's role is to protect the safety of its motorists and to help them when they are stuck in traffic. It will not be involved in the construction, which will be handled by State Highway Administration.
Stratmeyer said three construction proposals are being considered. Some of the features of each plan:
Option B-2 would involve the construction of a ramp loop for northbound traffic on I-95. It would involve taking the traffic over the top of Route 24 and I-95. It would bridge Emmorton Road and merge with Route 24, heading toward Bel Air about three-quarters of a mile past Emmorton Road.
For motorists traveling east on Route 24 toward I-95, a new service road would go over the top of Tollgate Road and feed into the I-95 south ramp.
Option C calls for bridges to take Route 24 traffic over the intersection of Emmorton and Tollgate roads.
Option F would be "virtually a combination of plans B-2 and C," said Stratmeyer. "We will probably end up taking the best of each plan and putting them together," he said.
Wesley Mitchell, the I-95 and Route 24 project engineer at the State Highway Administration, said the full cost of improvements to the interchange would run from $135 million to $175 million.
"Under the best scenario," he said, "construction could begin in 2007." It would take three years to complete.
Buck said the highway administration will hold a public hearing on the three proposals in the fall. After the hearing, one will be selected.