A standing-room crowd of more than 300 Rivers Edge residents told state highway officials Monday night not to limit access to U.S. 29 via Rivers Edge Road, the only way in or out of their Howard County community.
The meeting at Atholton High School focused on the most recent State Highway Administration plans to widen northbound U.S. 29 from the Patuxent River to Route 175 in Columbia. The four-mile section, two lanes each way, is the site of bumper-to-bumper traffic every afternoon at rush hour. Another meeting will take place Wednesday at Hammond High School.
"At two lanes, it can't handle the traffic today," and delays will get worse if nothing is done, state engineer Derrick Gunn told the residents.
But SHA district engineer David J. Coyne said construction is at least three years away, and there is no money set aside for what could be a $100 million project. Lack of money in 2006 and 2007 led to a proposal for a tunnel under southbound U.S. 29 being pulled off the table, officials said.
Stephanie Cates-Harman gave state officials petitions signed by 464 residents from 363 homes who oppose changes that would bar them from crossing southbound lanes of U.S. 29 to head north or to enter the community from the south. A traffic light on the southbound lanes now allows those turns.
"I want you to know these people are committed, focused and engaged," she told highway officials as elected officials looked on. Cates-Harman had volunteered to prepare her 20-minute presentation on the community's behalf.
The proposed widening of U.S. 29 and addition of sound walls could mean the elimination of the traffic light at Rivers Edge Road, just south of Route 32. Residents want an overpass or a tunnel or to keep the intersection the way it is.
Mike Collison, 60, proposed a new alternative, complete with a map showing a bridge from a hilltop at Vista Road at the community's north end across U.S. 29 to Old Columbia Road. Collison said he and his wife, Karen, were hit head-on in February by a southbound driver who swerved into them while they sat at the traffic light, waiting to turn into their community. A car that slowed because of a fire engine's flashing lights caused the other driver to swerve, he said.
"This intersection has got to go," he said.
One state option would force traffic to exit southbound and use the Johns Hopkins Road interchange, a 2 1/2-mile detour, if they want to turn and go north. To enter Rivers Edge from the south, residents would have to drive past it to Route 32 and use that interchange to turn around. Three of the four current options would limit residents' movement to the north or ability to go east on Route 32. The fourth is the standard "no build" option to leave things as they are, though that is not the state's intention.
"The goal is for U.S. 29 to be a controlled-access highway," SHA official Eric Marbello said.
Oliver Bartlett, 83, said he has lived in Rivers Edge since 1959 and remembers attending meetings about access 23 years ago.
"Everybody agreed to the underpass," he recalled, noting that two-thirds of residents leaving the community each morning are heading north on U.S. 29. Another resident pointed out that the nearest hospital is in Columbia, also to the north.
Sam Brown, 45, a 14-year resident, complained about the four options.
"Either do nothing, or dumb, dumber or dumbest," he said to applause and laughter.
Cates-Harman said the options "are neither safe nor reasonable. Those were rejected [in 1987] by your own department's experts."
State legislators said they came to listen but are talking to state transportation officials behind the scenes.
"I can guarantee you those four won't be the only options," said state Sen. James N. Robey. He, like Democratic Dels. Guy Guzzone, Shane Pendergrass, Frank Turner and Elizabeth Bobo, all of whom attended, is seeking re-election. Ed Priola, a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates, also was at the meeting, as were County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty and her Democratic primary opponent, Alan Klein.
"We have heard you, and we're going back to the drawing board," said Russ Anderson, a transportation engineer from the state's Office of Planning and Preliminary Engineering.
Several residents said that fast-moving traffic on U.S. 29 makes driving more dangerous and ultimately causes more delays by attracting more vehicles to the road.
"We are making [U.S.] 29 a very desirable way to travel," said Linda Tom, 60, a 24-year commuter who lives in Rivers Edge.
Motorists, including drivers of large trucks, are beginning to use the road as an alternative to Interstate 95, she said.
"We're not any safer or faster," she said.
She wants the traffic light at Rivers Edge to stop traffic on U.S. 29 in both directions to allow residents safe ingress and egress, while slowing drivers who sometimes hit 75 mph.
"It's reasonable and cheap," she said. "I love that traffic light."