A plan approved last week to tackle the problem of excessive traffic on Baltimore County's residential streets is likely to disappoint more people than it satisfies in the short term, officials acknowledge, because the county has limited funds for it and a desire to avoid the backlash that has accompanied traffic calming elsewhere.
The county's Department of Public Works has a list of more than 80 streets from one end of the county to the other where residents have sought traffic calming, and that's just the places where people have known where to send requests.
But with limited funds - only $400,000 for the entire county - and limited manpower, the plan was written to weed out most complaints. It will address only a handful of streets with the most egregious problems, in neighborhoods where residents are most committed to doing something about them.
Baltimore County is years behind other area jurisdictions in using traffic calming - the practice of using islands, chokers, roundabouts and speed bumps to slow motorists and encourage them to stay on main streets.
Even so, community activists around the county said they see this plan, the result of years of lobbying by residents and an 18-month study, as a reasonable first step to solving one of the most frustrating problems in their neighborhoods.
"It won't serve my street, and I have speeding problems," said Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist who was on the Planning Board advisory panel that helped draft the plan.
"But we have to look for the general benefit to the county. ... I think it's a good starting point."
The Public Works Department has installed a few devices in Catonsville and Towson that narrow the roadway in hopes of slowing traffic, but beginning June 1, the county will have a formal process for accepting applications and determining which streets are most in need of alteration.
One example of a street in need of traffic calming is Placid Avenue in Carney.
When the light at Joppa Road backs up with people trying to get from Harford Road to Old Harford Road, Placid Avenue stops living up to its name.
"There's a hill one way and good visibility the other way," said Rick Dashiell, a resident who has spoken about traffic at public hearings. "Traffic can go routinely 50 to 60 [mph] without even thinking."
Darrell Wiles, the chief of the county's Bureau of Traffic Engineering and Transportation Planning, said Placid Avenue might be a good candidate for the traffic calming program.
Placid Avenue, which connects Harford and Old Harford, isn't a collector street or a dead end or cul-de-sac, types of streets that automatically will be weeded out of the county's program. It also has a relatively high volume of traffic traveling at high speeds, two of the basic criteria for inclusion.
But even if the street scores high on speed and volume scales, residents still will have to clear some difficult hurdles before the county will change the roadway. Petitioners would have to get signatures from 60 percent of the neighbors affected by a proposed traffic calming device.
If they succeed, they would then have to conduct an origin and destination study, meaning residents would stand nearby during rush hour and write down the license plate numbers of every car that drives by and the time they entered or exited the affected area.
If the study finds a high percentage of the traffic is cutting through the neighborhood, Public Works representatives will meet with the community to design a solution.
Once a final plan is in place, 75 percent of nearby residents will have to sign a petition approving the design, and all those living adjacent to any proposed traffic calming devices would have to approve.
Dashiell said he hopes the process won't prove too onerous.
"It's difficult to get people together to do anything," he said. "To me, it's as simple as narrowing the roadway. People have too much room, and when they have too much room, they go too fast. ... I have three kids. One of them is 15 and should know better, but the 7- and 9-year-old, they don't always look both ways before crossing the street. When somebody gets hurt, it's too late."
County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said traffic was probably the biggest complaint he heard from people on the campaign trail last fall, and he sees it as both a safety and quality-of-life issue. He said he thought traffic calming was so important that he put an extra $300,000 for it in this year's budget.
That much money won't begin to solve the backlog of complaints around the county, but considering how complicated and touchy an issue traffic calming can be, starting small is probably the best way to go, Smith said.
"A trial-and-error method is going to be helpful," he said. "We have to start somewhere."
After spending about $1.5 million on traffic calming in the 1990s, Howard County has stopped installing the devices for budgetary reasons.