Drivers may get green lights

$23 million project to ease city traffic


At a cost of nearly $23 million and after decades of cursing by frustrated motorists, Mayor Martin O'Malley is promising less congestion along Baltimore's busiest corridors and in the city's central business district within three months.

A high-tech upgrade of Baltimore's 1,300 traffic signals is almost complete, promising - according to city officials - extensive changes at the clogged intersections and ill-timed traffic signals that have combined to make Baltimore one of the nation's most congested cities.

"We're going to start seeing results three months from now," Ziad A. Sabra, an official with the project's lead consultant, told the City Council yesterday.

Some residents and their representatives are less optimistic.

Catherine Evans, who has been president of the Belvedere Improvement Association in North Baltimore for 12 years, said traffic officials have done little to alleviate residents' concerns about the intersection of York Road and Northern Parkway.

"When you have correspondence on this issue that goes back 12 years, their credibility is in question," Evans said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke - who lists her biggest traffic frustration as 33rd Street and Loch Raven Boulevard - worried that planners are too concerned with speeding up traffic in a city where, she said, police have little time to issue tickets.

"We need traffic-calming more than we need to make it move faster," said Clarke, who criticized the Department of Transportation's response to neighborhood traffic concerns. "We've been trying since 2003 to get a left-turn arrow from 33rd Street onto Loch Raven. It's a very bad intersection."

Traffic officials said high-tech improvements, including a Calvert Street center that will monitor intersections equipped with computers and cameras, will be completed by the end of this month. Over the next two years, city officials will work to study traffic patterns that will help them adjust the timing of stoplights. By that time, city officials expect to see up to a 20 percent reduction in travel times and up to a 15 percent drop in fuel emissions.

"We're confident we're going to meet these goals," said Sabra, of Sabra, Wang & Associates Inc. in Baltimore

Dave L. Montgomery, the city's traffic division chief, said the upgrades will replace technology that "was state of the art 35 years ago" and will one day get Baltimore off the list of the nation's most-congested cities.

Last year, the Texas Transportation Institute ranked Baltimore 16th out of 85 metropolitan areas in the nation for traffic congestion, because motorists here spent an average of 48 hours per year in traffic.

Also last year, the National Transportation Operations Coalition published a report criticizing states, including Maryland, for having red lights that are too long, green lights that are too short and signals that are not synchronized.

By the end of this month, the city will have spent $11 million to install new control boxes at 961 of its 1,300 traffic signals. The boxes plug the lights into a nearly $4 million centralized traffic control center in the 400 block of N. Calvert St., where, along with 21 cameras that will soon be installed, traffic officials can ease congestion instantly by changing signal patterns, Sabra said.

The upgrade, including additional costs for software and hardware programming and for communications networks, will cost $23 million. Montgomery said the federal government is picking up 80 percent of the tab.

Once the system is operational next month, the city will begin its timing studies with the 120 signals along the most heavily traveled gateway roads and the 400 signals in the central business district.

The study will determine how best to time traffic signals to reduce the number of stops and decrease fuel emissions.

The most congested gateways, according to transportation officials, are Harford Road, Falls Road, Belair Road, York Road, Edmondson Avenue, Eastern Avenue and U.S. 40/Pulaski Highway.

Council members reacted immediately to the administration's presentation by noting problematic intersections that they want fixed.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said his constituents complain mostly about the intersection of York Road and Northern Parkway.

"That is the pits," Harris said.

They gave voice to a frustration felt throughout the city.

David Thompson, former president of the Neighbors Who Care community group, now the Southeast Improvement Association, said his neighbors worry most about the intersection of Holabird and Dundalk avenues.

"If you're coming down Dundalk [Avenue] to turn left on Holabird, the light is so long it backs traffic out onto Dundalk," Thompson said. "By the time the light changes, you have 30 vehicles backed up. It just doesn't stay green long enough to clear it."

Johnette Richardson, manager of the Main Street program for Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc., said the city should be careful not to improve the flow of traffic so much that motorists' speed is increased dangerously.

"From a pedestrian standpoint, you almost fear for your life crossing Belair Road," Richardson said.

Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts said he looks forward to a day when motorists driving at the speed limit can cruise through a long stretch of intersections without stopping. He said signal improvements are long overdue for a downtown that is seeing a resurgence of nightlife and residential traffic.

"We've been looking forward to a more complex and capable computer system taking effect," Evitts said.

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