Stoplight at vacant lot turns reader's head

October 30, 2007

THE PROBLEM -- A traffic light on Key Highway in South Baltimore appears to serve no purpose.

THE BACKSTORY -- Reader Jim Smith asks a very good question that should have a very easy answer about a signal on Key Highway a block south of Cross Street: "Why does the city maintain a traffic signal at the intersection of a busy street and a vacant lot?"

The answer, of course, is far from simple.

Frank Murphy, deputy chief of the Baltimore Department of Transportation's traffic division, said the light was installed several years ago based on early plans for the Pier Homes at HarborView development that indicated a cross street would be built there.

The developer's plans changed before the intersection was completed, but not before the traffic light was put up. For some reason, no one took it down.

Murphy first said the light was set on permanent green facing each direction of Key Highway. He said officials don't want to take it down because another developer is building houses on the west side of Key Highway and may want to add a road that could renew the need for the intersection, and the light.

"We would kind of look like idiots if we had to take it down and put it back up," Murphy said.

A Sun photographer later went to Key Highway and discovered that the light was not permanently set on green. It was, in fact, turning red, forcing cars to stop. Murphy drove to Key Highway himself and confirmed the findings.

The light remains green nearly all the time for the morning and evening rush hours -- "If you're a commuter, you never see red," Murphy said -- but reverts to normal cycle at other times. Murphy said construction trucks from HarborView park in the small lot and use the light to get in and out of the development.

"It does serve a purpose," he said, though he quickly acknowledged that the trucks most likely could get in and out without the light. "Would we have installed the light in that location?" he said. "No."

Murphy said that if the development going up on the west side of Key Highway doesn't need the intersection, the signal will be removed. That seems prudent to Watchdog; a traffic light solely for the convenience of construction trucks seems unnecessary.

WHO CAN FIX THIS -- Felicia Oliver, chief of the Baltimore Department of Transportation Traffic Division, 410-396-6905. City residents also can call 311 to report problems.

UPDATE

The gap in the CSX Railroad fence at the end of South Charles Street might finally be repaired.

SBIC President Donnie Fair, president of the South Baltimore Improvement Association, said he has met with CSX representative Jason French and toured the area where a fence gap along a railroad right of way has opened access to prostitutes, drug addicts and vagrants and posed a danger to children.

Fair said French promised fixes in two months. Watchdog first reported the problem April 17 - 28 weeks ago. Fair said he is happy but cautious. "At this point, it's all promises," he said. "Until I see the fence up, I won't hold my breath."

Robert Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX, confirmed that French met with community leaders and that the fence will be repaired.

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