For Worst Interchange, envelope please ...


October 23, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER

In 1916, four decades before the advent of the interstate highway system, one Arthur Hale of Rowlandsville in Cecil County was awarded the first patent for what he called "certain new and useful improvements in street crossings." It was a design that would become known as the cloverleaf interchange. The first was built in New Jersey in 1928, and its descendants would sprout up all over the country.(Congratulations to reader John Clinton of Millersville, who correctly answered last week's question about Maryland's role in obsolete highway design.)

Ninety years after Hale's achievement, Maryland is burdened with many a highway interchange - including some old-fashioned cloverleafs - that are better suited for the traffic of 1916 than that of 2006.

As part of this column's debut, readers were invited to nominate some of their most-loathed interchanges.

Many readers stepped up to meet the challenge. But the prize for best submission goes to Guy D. Davis for his eloquent nomination of the bizarre interchange where eastbound drivers on Route 32 must make a left exit to get onto Interstate 95 north.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an omitted word, yesterday's Getting There column incorrectly described the Maryland Transportation Authority's plans for the interchange at Interstate 95 and Pulaski Highway. In fact, there are no current plans to alter the interchange.
The Sun regrets the error.

You don't need a doctorate, which Davis has, to diagnose the problem with this interchange. The northbound ramp dumps drivers into the left lane of I-95, where they must merge with the most aggressive of the would-be NASCAR drivers on the highway.

"If traffic is moving at highway speeds, it is not unusual to be forced into the shoulder at the end of the merge lane when drivers don't let you in," Davis wrote.

Even with a relatively generous merge area, this interchange is so scary that it can be an adventure even at off-peak hours. Timid drivers should avoid it. Even the brave should forget trying to merge across three lanes to take the right exit onto Route 175 in heavy traffic.

Ed Gregg of Westminster pointed to a similar left-hand merge - that of eastbound I-695 into northbound I-95 near Rosedale. It's a similar story. People flying up I-95, trying to make up time from tunnel backups, are in no mood to let people merge into "their" fast lane.

Gregg also questioned the left-lane exit that channels traffic from northbound I-95 onto the Baltimore Beltway headed toward Catonsville.

"You have to get all the way over in the fast lane which means the folks driving 80 or 85 all of a sudden have to slow down - perish the thought - and it's downright suicidal to go less than 70 in the fast lane," Gregg writes.

Actually, what really makes this interchange fun is the backup that develops in the left lane at peak traffic times. Because the westbound ramp is a bottleneck, traffic backs up in the passing lane as the cars whiz by in the middle lanes. Not good.

Sherry Phoebus of White Marsh identifies the junction of Interstate 95 and Pulaski Highway as trouble. If you take the eastbound ramp, you find that some engineer of a bygone era decided a merge area would be a frivolous expenditure.

Phoebus noted that the lane into which drivers merge - when they finally can - is a right-turn-only lane. She said many drivers end up turning into a service road and driving several blocks before making a left-right combination to rejoin the highway.

The interchange now falls under the jurisdiction of the Maryland Transportation Authority. But spokeswoman Kelly Melhem says the authority is blameless for the design. She said the plans for the ramps were drawn up by a long-defunct city highway agency.

Melhem said there are plans to alter the interchange, adding that the authority has received little feedback about it. She said traffic there is relatively light - about seven cars a minute at peak periods. My observation after a visit: Eastern Baltimore County deserves better.

In all fairness, it should be noted that bad interchange design is more the result of obsolescence than incompetence. Mostly, engineers did the best they could at mid-20th century. But as volumes grow and courtesy declines, outmoded interchanges become less forgiving.

Generally, the state's professionals are well aware of interchanges that are failing. The problem they face is that interchanges are fiendishly expensive to rebuild and resources are limited.

There is some good news. According to State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck, the agency has already replaced the Beltway cloverleafs at Dulaney Valley, York Road, Liberty Road and Reisterstown Road. Still to be rebuilt are those at Perring Parkway, Harford Road, Belair Road, and Route 295 - many of which will be dealt with as part of the planned Beltway widening.

The state is also planning to get rid of left-lane ramps on I-95 northeast of Baltimore as part of its plan to add express toll lanes.

Buck also said the state has begun to tinker with "concepts" for design improvements that should address the weaving that goes on at I-95 and Route 100 - the interchange that inspired my initial rant. There's hope that could begin next year but no money in the budget yet.

But the SHA is sticking by the design at Route 32 and I-95.

"Realistically, just because motorists have to enter I-95 from eastbound Maryland 32 at the posted speed limit does not make the interchange a poor design. It just makes it different, and motorists by nature do not like change," Buck said.

The spokesman compared motorists' aversion to the interchange to some drivers' resistance to roundabouts. Now there's a topic ripe for reader reaction.

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