Traffic study sees gridlock

Experts call for costly improvements to I-70, Marriottsville bridge

December 04, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

Without expansive and costly road improvements, rush hour traffic along sections of Interstate 70 in western Howard County will worsen and ultimately become intolerable for motorists, a state-sponsored study says.

It also concludes that the biggest requisite for acceptable traffic flow on Marriottsville Road, which is adjacent to two sprawling planned communities, is widening the two-lane bridge that passes over the interstate.

The study was conducted by engineering and transportation specialists from STV Inc. of Baltimore. The firm was retained by the State Highway Administration to examine projected traffic on Interstate 70, from west of U.S. 40 to east of U.S. 29; on Marriottsville Road, from Old Frederick Road to Route 144 (Frederick Road); and at the interchange of U.S. 29 and I-70.

The firm also developed multiple short- and long-term designs to ease congestion.

"We looked at what's out there today. What's out there somewhere in the middle of this 30-year process, and what will the traffic look like in 2030," said Joel K. Oppenheimer, consultant project manager for STV. "This is a very preliminary study. It's a first step in the state process of evaluating opportunities [and] concepts."

The public received its first preview of the results Thursday during a three-hour presentation by STV at Mount View Middle School. Those in attendance were invited to make written comments and suggestions, which, Oppenheimer said, would be considered for incorporation into the company's final report and alternative proposals.

They are expected to be presented to the county and state early next year.

The results, though, document that without large infusions of cash for road projects, traffic problems will intensify, resulting in gridlock in some areas during peak commuting hours in the morning and evening.

STV's presentation did not quantify the number of vehicles using I-70 and Marriottsville Road daily, but it did evaluate the quality of traffic flow, using a rating system from "A" to "F," or failing.

For the most part, existing traffic flow along the section of I-70 that was included in the study is acceptable, Oppenheimer said. During evening rush hour, the flow was rated a "D," which means that the movement of vehicles is affected by other traffic. "That's tolerable," he said.

Matt Storck, another STV representative, said that road projects are typically designed for that designation because the costs of building to "A" or "B" levels of service are prohibitive.

Traffic flow on I-70 was rated an "F," however, at the merge with U.S. 29.

"The traffic is a little unstable there," Oppenheimer said. "You have so much traffic coming from 29, ... all of a sudden everybody stops. You have stop and go."

Without major road improvements, the outlook is ominous for motorists because population growth and development will intensify the number of vehicles relying on I-70 and other major roads in the region.

"With no improvements, everything gets worse in both directions," Oppenheimer said.

"You'll experience that congestion every day without fail," said Storck. "It will be so intolerable that people will find other" routes to travel, which would strain traffic on smaller roads.

STV outlined possible projects to relieve congestion in the short and long terms. They include:

Making I-70 six lanes between U.S. 29 and Marriottsville Road, adding a lane in each direction, and building a two-lane exit at U.S. 29. If those changes were in place by 2013, Oppenheimer said, traffic flow would be elevated to "D" from an "F."

The costs of those changes are between $55 million and $75 million, although Oppenheimer said they are "very rough" estimates.

Those changes, though, are regarded as only short-term improvements, whose benefits evaporate. "Somewhere between 2015 and 2030, it stops working," he said.

Expanding the entire I-70 corridor to eight lanes, with the exception of a small stretch between Marriottsville Road and U.S. 40.

That is regarded as a long-term solution, and the estimated cost is $110 million to $130 million, excluding the cost of the short-term improvements.

Oppenheimer described Marriottsville Road as "a road that's not operating very well today" and said numerous options exist for relieving congestion on it. Much of the peak traffic on that road are motorists from Carroll County, he said.

Developers of the planned communities of Turf Valley and Waverly Woods will widen sections of Marriottsville Road from two lanes to four, which should significantly improve traffic flow, said Storck.

The "big problem" on Marriottsville Road, he said, is the bridge over I-70, and only a widening project will alleviate that congestion.

"There is only one lane [in each direction] across the bridge," Storck said. "If you want to turn left, you have to slow down, wait for traffic to clear coming in the opposite direction. If you're behind that left-turning vehicle, there is no where for you to go right now."

STV suggests various widening proposals. The "minimum" need, Oppenheimer said, is to expand the bridge to four lanes. The company also suggests plans to widen it to six and seven lanes.

Preliminary cost estimates range from $10 million to $12 million for a four-lane bridge, and $15 million to $17 million for seven lanes.

The firm also suggests building a loop at I-70 and Marriottsville Road to alleviate congestion.

STV will present its findings and proposals to the county and state early next year. Officials will then decide whether to endorse any of the ideas and how to finance them.

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