Residents fight state's solution for intersection

Roundabout proposed as safer alternative for dangerous crossroads

Essex politicians, neighbors prefer stoplight

Activist says it's an effort to further `gentrify' the growing area

August 08, 2005|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Some motorists find them a giddy adrenaline rush. Others avoid them like a root canal.

And while traffic roundabouts are hailed by experts worldwide as the safest intersection-control measure in modern planning, drivers entertain their own deep-seated feelings: They either love them or hate them.

That's what they are trying to decide these days in Essex.

Maryland highway officials are proposing the largest roundabout in the state at a troublesome crossroads, Route 702 and Hyde Park Road in the eastern Baltimore County community. If completed, the $2 million venture would be the state's 41st modern circular intersection built in the last decade.

Already, suspicions abound among those who live and work in Essex. Some see the roundabout as an attempt to further "gentrify" the east side, an area undergoing redevelopment along the waterfront region.

Others, including one county official, feel the state tried to sneak the idea past residents, many of whom harbor a long-standing suspicion of any government project.

"Look, a lot of what is being done under the east-side renaissance is long overdue and much appreciated," said Jackie Nickel, a longtime activist and board member of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association.

"But this roundabout ... why weren't people [initially] notified?" Nickel said. "And while the experts say it is safer for vehicles, what about pedestrians who walk to the supermarket at that intersection?"

Answers to these and other questions will be sought at an informational meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Chesapeake High School, 1801 Turkey Point Road. Residents will be given a multimedia presentation by state highway officials who are also scheduled to field inquiries.

Dubious residents have some backing from their elected officials, among them state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr.

Stone said he is not convinced a roundabout is the best idea for the intersection of Route 702 and Hyde Park Road. "At roundabouts, it's like every person for themselves," Stone said.

He prefers a traffic signal.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, who also is not sold on the idea, said he pushed for the public input meeting.

"The state seemed intent on going ahead with this roundabout idea on 702 without involving area residents," Bartenfelder said.

"The state needs to hear that they will be creating a bigger problem with a roundabout at that intersection," Bartenfelder said. "People want answers."

Last year, a proposal for a roundabout at Old Eastern Avenue and Back River Neck Road was defeated by area residents. They argued that such an addition was not pedestrian-friendly.

A spokesman for the State Highway Administration said controversy about the most recent roundabout proposal is the result of a misunderstanding.

David Buck, the spokesman, said his agency received concerns earlier this year from elected officials and residents about the dangerous intersection. On Route 702, also called Southeast Boulevard, there are six lanes of traffic with a 50 mph speed limit.

Where 702 intersects with Hyde Park Road, Buck said, there were 20 accidents from 2001 to 2003, with 10 injuries.

"It is our experience that roundabouts are great safety features," Buck said.

During the debate over the roundabout, SHA has erected four-way stop signs and rumble strips at the intersection.

Recent U.S. studies show the modern roundabout is safer and more efficient than traffic signals and stop signs since being introduced in the United States about 10 years ago. Because of the unique "yield" law at roundabouts, accidents tend to be minor because vehicles are moving slower, said Lucy Gibson, a traffic engineer with Smart Mobility Inc., a consulting firm in Vermont.

"It's really not the free-for-all some people describe," Gibson said. "Where roundabouts have been placed, the general experience has been an improvement in safety."

Instead of violent crashes seen at intersections with stop signs or signals, the deflection of traffic around the roundabout's island and slower speeds result in fewer serious crashes and injuries, officials say.

Pedestrians can be protected at roundabouts with marked crossing lanes and refuges, Gibson said. When the first five of Maryland's 40 roundabouts opened, annual crashes were reduced by 64 percent; crash severity dropped by 83 percent, SHA figures showed.

Compared to roundabouts, at which drivers must yield to vehicles already in the flow, circles have higher crash rates, traffic specialists noted.

In Maryland, the SHA spokesman said the agency never avoided gathering input from residents.

"As far as the roundabout goes, we have always had the intention of including the public to hear their ideas on the issue," Buck said.

He said confusion arose when the agency erected the stop signs and rumble strips without public notification. One big change the SHA is studying, Buck said, is narrowing the six lanes on Route 702 to four lanes at the roundabout point.

To Nickel, the community activist, narrowing the highway's lanes to four is a good start.

"Can you imagine driving a small car, stuck in the middle lane, with trucks or SUVs on either side of you, attempting to see while entering the roundabout?" Nickel said.

She, too, would prefer a traffic signal "because there are some elderly people down on the peninsula who have no idea what a roundabout is," said Nickel. "We just wonder if there is somebody in state government who wants this roundabout just to further gentrify our area."

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