Business leaders have for years wanted to make downtown Towson an easier place to navigate by foot, and now officials from Baltimore County and the state are considering an unusual idea designed to do just that.
They are talking about swapping ownership of two roads.
The state would get the county-owned Towson bypass. The county would get a portion of Route 45 - that is, the section of York Road that runs through the heart of Towson.
Given the authority, the county might add parking and make other changes to reduce and slow traffic. And that, merchants hope, might make crossing York Road less of an adventure.
"What we want is a main street where people feel comfortable walking," said J. Stephens Adams, president of the Towson Retail and Restaurant Association and owner of Furniture Safari on York Road.
Maryland highway officials say they don't think the state has ever agreed to such a switch. Certainly nothing along the lines of the suggested Towson swap, said Kellie Boulware, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration.
While places such as White Marsh and Hunt Valley have created faux main streets, Towson has a main street that is hard for shoppers and pedestrians to cross, commercial real estate broker Robert E. Latshaw Jr. said, adding: "York Road has effectively bifurcated Towson."
Latshaw, the former president of the Greater Towson Committee, an influential business group, said the idea of exchanging ownership of the roads to change the dynamics of Towson's downtown has been around for years but has never been taken seriously until now.
SHA officials met last month with county officials and local business leaders about a possible trade and have more discussions planned.
Any decision about swapping the roads is months away, Boulware said.
After a June 23 meeting, state and county officials are focused on whether the state could make some of the suggested changes along the stretch of York Road that runs through downtown Towson, she said.
County officials are to present their proposal for changes they'd like to see along York Road at a meeting to be scheduled this month or early next month, Boulware said.
Business leaders say they'd like to see the speed limit on York Road through Towson lowered from 35 mph to 25 mph, and traffic chokers - concrete islands or curb extensions - constructed to narrow the four-lane road to two lanes. If the county owned the road, they say, restrictions that prohibit parking on York Road before 6 p.m. also could be lifted.
Business leaders also would like to see better signs to direct motorists to the area's parking garages and to the Towson bypass, which connects York Road via Burke Avenue to Bosley Avenue and back to York Road. It also would help if there were signs steering motorists traveling north on York Road toward the Towson Town Center mall to turn right onto Towsontown Boulevard and then make a left onto Virginia Avenue, which dead-ends at a mall entrance, Latshaw said.
If such changes were made, a swap could be unnecessary, Latshaw said.
Boulware said the state has agreed, in a few instances, to take over maintenance of a small portion of a county road, or allow a local government to maintain a certain stretch of road, but not actually switch ownership. For example, she said, after the state made improvements to a state road in New Market in Frederick County late last year, the town took over maintenance.
Under the proposed Towson trade, the state would take over ownership - and therefore maintenance - of the bypass, and the county would take over York Road from Burke Avenue to the traffic circle at Joppa Road.
Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson Democrat, said he thinks it would be a great boost to businesses in downtown Towson area if the county were to gain control of a portion of York Road.
The state isn't "concerned as much with promoting the business district as they are about traffic flow," Gardina said. "If the county has control, we can control what happens there. We could implement some measures to reduce traffic and speed and make it more pedestrian- and business-friendly."
The retail space in Towson Commons, much of it vacant after the closing of Borders Books and Music last month, also might be helped by road changes, Latshaw said.
New restaurants might want to have sidewalk cafe tables, he said. But, said Latshaw, "You don't get that small-town community feeling when you have cars whizzing by at 40 mph."