Consultants advise letting rural roads meander

Study finds straight streets would bring more cars to Baltimore County


The narrow, curvy and sometimes congested roads that wind through rural northern Baltimore County should be kept the way they are, according to a study to be released today by a Towson-based land preservation group.

Though creating wider, straighter roads might seem a logical response to increasing traffic volume, the transportation consultants hired by the Valleys Planning Council concluded that bigger roads only bring more cars traveling faster.

The Valleys Planning Council plans to lobby county officials to adopt the recommendations as formal rural roads design standards.

"We want the road standards to match the land-use standards," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the land preservation group, which commissioned the $50,000 study.

Baltimore County limits development in the rural parts of the county through zoning classifications, with programs to buy property owners' development rights and by its decision not to extend public water and sewer lines to outlying areas, Moore said.

But when it comes time to repair a bridge or improve a road, she said, the county uses traditional highway design standards that often are not in sync with the county's land-use policies.

"Because road and bridge construction projects are expensive and traffic is expected to increase, even in areas where future development has been restricted, the natural tendency of transportation planners is to maximize capacity for future, increased volumes," according to the study conducted by Transportation Resource Group Inc., a York, Pa.-based company, and Bridgescape, a Columbia-based firm. "This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - the familiar `build it and they will come' scenario."

By keeping the roads and bridges narrow, the country feel of the area will be preserved, the consultants and Valleys Planning Council officials said.

"We don't need the straightest, fastest roads," said Jon Seitz, a partner at Transportation Resource Group. "We want roads that meander through the countryside."

"There's a natural instinct for drivers to slow down on those roads," said Seitz, adding that less pavement also has advantages for storm water management.

But Bill Korpman, deputy director of the county's Department of Public Works, said the county rarely widens or straightens roads.

"We're not going around widening or straightening roads just on principle, only if there's a safety issue," said Korpman, adding that even when there is a safety concern, engineers first would look at whether the problem could be addressed by installing a guard rail or making another improvement to the road.

The Valleys Planning Council study also recommends:

Property owners should not be required to give the county such wide rights of way when they preserve land in conservation easements.

The community should have input about roadway improvement projects that will change the dimensions or geometry of an existing road.

When widening the shoulders along roads, the county should use grass when possible, rather than pavement.

County officials should make sure that paving contractors do not widen roads by adding a few inches each time they resurface the road.

Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County Republican, said he strongly supports the viewpoint expressed in the council study.

"Part of the charm of Baltimore County, especially the more rural parts, is its country atmosphere," McIntire said.

Although some bridges need to be replaced for safety reasons, McIntire said, "We don't have to build for superhighways."

The county's 2010 master plan calls for the creation of rural road design standards, but McIntire said it might be difficult to get county officials to adopt them.

"Their concern is with traffic flow," he said. "My goal is to preserve the rural character of the country."

Community associations in northern Baltimore County have been meeting for months to come up with suggestions on how to relieve congestion, reduce speeding and improve the safety of the roads in the area.

They've met with county and state officials and successfully lobbied, in some cases, to have a traffic light installed and signs added.

Don Schlimm, a Parkton resident and one of the organizers of the traffic meetings, said he favors having the rural road standards adopted by the county.

Drivers tend to avoid winding, narrower roads, especially when they become congested, he said.

"If you make it wider and straighter, it will fill up," Schlimm said. " People kind of self-select. They say, `I'm not going down that road because it's slower and backs up.'"

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