Group seeks long-term U.S. 29 safety measures

TRAFFIC TALK

September 18, 2005|By Jody K. Vilschick | Jody K. Vilschick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE SQUEAKY wheel is the one that usually gets the grease, at least that's what Bonnie Dorr, chairwoman of OC-29, is hoping. The group was organized by Dorr and others in her community surrounding U.S. 29 at Old Columbia Road because of the dangers that intersection presents.

OC-29 met recently with community, county and state representatives at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel. Among those attending were Howard County Executive James N. Robey, County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, Councilman Charles C. Feaga, and all four District 13 legislators (State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader and Dels. Shane E. Pendergrass, Neil F. Quinter, and Frank S. Turner). In addition, Steve Sharar, division chief for transportation and special projects of the county Department of Public Works, and four representatives from the state Highway Administration, also attended.

There have been 57 recorded accidents from 2001 through last month at that intersection, usually because of drivers trying to make left turns with traffic coming in the opposite direction.

According to SHA spokesman David Buck, SHA reviewed the U.S. 29/Old Columbia Road intersection last year and again in August. The 2004 traffic count showed that there were 49,000 cars a day traveling on that section of U.S. 29; traffic projections indicate that number will almost double in the next 20 years.

"Many of us have up-and-coming teen drivers, others have concern for the safety of even younger kids, e.g., children playing in and around streets in the Cherry Tree neighborhoods where U.S. 29 traffic has been diverted, and still others just want to get to work safely and efficiently," Dorr said.

"The dream solution would be an overpass," Dorr added. She noted that although some alternative solutions were discussed at a community meeting last week, these are mostly interim solutions.

But interim solutions may be all that are possible for a while. "The community will need to work through Howard County to get a new interchange to be made a priority by the county," Buck said. "SHA builds projects based on an individual county's priority list. However, based on input from the community, as well comments from [the] meeting, SHA will be making some short-term safety enhancements, as well as investigating other suggestions made at the meeting."

Sharar said the county agrees with SHA doing a study of solutions for the problem, and Robey said the county would work with the state to make it a safer intersection.

Beginning next month, Buck said, SHA will restrict some of the crossover traffic on Old Columbia Road to improve safety. Cross-traffic and left turns from Old Columbia Road, as well as left turns from northbound U.S. 29 onto Old Columbia Road, will be prohibited. Right turns from Old Columbia Road and left-turns from southbound U.S. 29 will continue to be allowed.

"These changes will address the documented crash pattern," he said.

But Buck also warned that the southbound U.S. 29 left turn onto Old Columbia Road could be further restricted in the future as SHA continues to monitor traffic safety at the intersection.

The most immediate changes will come shortly, when SHA installs florescent yellow intersection warning signs. SHA will follow that with a flashing beacon at the intersection next spring.

But this is not a story of solutions -- those are still to come -- but of how community activism can possibly change the roads on which we drive.

According to Bill England, co-chair of OC-29, about a year ago the homeowners association board in Reservoir Overlook learned that there didn't seem to be much official concern over the intersection. That's when Dorr got involved. She was the e-mail coordinator for the neighborhood.

"As e-mails began to circulate, [we] found there were a lot of homeowners who were extremely interested in this," she said at the meeting.

Dorr and England contacted other neighborhood associations, as well as Gus Novotny, the owner of Rocky Gorge Mini-Golf and Batting Cages at one corner of the intersection and invited them to meetings. Thus, OC-29 was created.

According to Dorr, OC-29 is truly a community effort. Some neighbors donated graphic design services for T-shirts and other material, others arranged for meeting spaces and ensured access to sophisticated audio-visual equipment at the meetings and still others volunteered as public relations contacts or the local media, politicians and other officials.

Buck noted that community activism can have a positive effect. "Any time a community group is involved and has consensus on any improvement, it helps show unity and a cohesive message," he said. "While there are no guarantees just because a group has been formed, SHA is willing to sit down and listen to any person or group with a concern on a state road."

But the road has not been easy, according to Dorr.

"It has been a challenge for all of us, as we have full-time jobs and have been squeezing this all in between the cracks whenever we can, usually weekends and evenings," Dorr said. "We have donated our time and funds toward the initiative because it is such an important issue for all of us."

Despite all the work so far and the meeting this month, much work remains to be done by OC-29 to ensure that a long-term solution is found. Working with local county officials will be the organization's best bet. Dorr's dream solution -- the interchange -- needs to be put onto the County's General Plan.

What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at TrafficTalk@comcast.net, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 30 Corporate Center, 10440 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 820, Columbia, 21044. Include your full name and contact information or your comments will not be published or receive a response.

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