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Arundel highway claims another victim

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Bright, blue-tinged pellets of glass from a shattered windshield remain trapped in twisted aluminum siding on a vacant house just above the makeshift shrine erected to 17-year-old Kala Austin, who was fatally injured near that spot this month.

Mountain Road in Anne Arundel County, also known as state Route 177, has seen many such memorials in recent decades. At least 20 people — many in their teens or only a little older — have died along the 11-mile stretch since the early 1990s. At least 14 have perished in crashes there in the last decade alone.

In that way, Mountain Road is representative of a class of once-pastoral suburban byways that now bear increasing traffic loads with little room to grow. But few if any are as constricted, busy and harder to bypass than Mountain Road. And for residents of Pasadena's peninsula, there is no practical alternative route.

The State Highway Administration contends the road is no more dangerous than others in the region but also acknowledges that direct comparisons are difficult because of Mountain Road's unusual configuration.

Local officials and residents, however, are certain of its dangers. Virtually all of its victims have been Pasadena residents.

"Without a doubt, for its speed limits and its size, it's ranked up at the top in accidents, especially accidents that lead to personal injury and tragedy," said Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, a Republican who represents the district that includes Pasadena. "Typically, we lose one young life a year on Mountain Road."

Donna Austin, Kala's mother, said she's determined to push for a safer Mountain Road — in particular, the spot near Fairwood Court where her daughter smashed into the side of a building that stands no more than 12 feet from the westbound travel lane.

That structure, little more than a decrepit shack, lies just east of a sharp curve where Kala lost control of her eastbound 2002 Volkswagen Jetta while on her way to Chesapeake High School about 7:30 a.m. on a rainy day. Last week, the path of Kala's car was marked by pink flags leading to a deep dent in the side of the house.

Austin wants to see it torn down.

"I'm just hoping something gets done so another child doesn't get killed down there," said Austin, a former SHA employee who now works for its parent Department of Transportation.

Making Mountain Road safer is a daunting task. While it carries the designation of a state highway, it is for much of its length little more than an overgrown country lane — a relic of the decades during which Anne Arundel County's peninsulas were rural outposts whose shores were lined with fishing shacks and summer cottages rather than waterfront mansions.

Along its path from Ritchie Highway to the Gibson Island gatehouse, Mountain Road passes the entrance to many subdivisions that have sprung up in recent decades, straining the road's capacity with suburban sprawl. State Highway Administration figures show that the section of Route 177 where Kala crashed carries 26,530 vehicles a day.

"This is probably one of those suburbs where you shouldn't have had this density of housing," said Pat Massof, president of the Saybrooke Woods Homeowners Association — representing a neighborhood that depends on Mountain Road.

For much of its length, including some of its most deadly stretches, Mountain Road is essentially a two-lane road with a third, reversible lane shoehorned down the middle to relieve peak-hour congestion. It is lined with countless points of entry and exit to retail parking lots and residential driveways.

Belying the name, there are no mountains or even significant hills along Mountain Road, though there are some sharp curves and tricky intersections. Shoulders are limited or nonexistent along much of the road, forcing bicyclists into the travel lanes. Few accommodations are made for pedestrians, several of whom have been victims of accidents during the past decade.

One of the most striking features of the road is the sheer number of fixed objects just a few feet from the edge of the pavement. Three of the last four known crash-related fatalities have involved single vehicles that hit a tree, a utility pole or — in Kala's case — a building.

Patricia Meley, who lives just up the road from the site of Kala's crash and whose front yard was the site of a crash in 2007 that killed two people, said some residents have installed decorative rocks along the road to protect their homes from being hit.

"There's very little room for error on Mountain Road when a person makes a mistake," said Anne Arundel County police Capt. David Waltemeyer, commander of the Eastern Division.

Midway along the route, limited-access Route 100 with its 55-mph speeds dumps into Mountain Road, which has a 40-mph limit. Farther out the peninsula lies Chesapeake High School, a daily destination for hundreds of drivers who, like Kala, have limited experience behind the wheel.

Massof said she feared for the safety of her stepdaughter when she first received her license.

"We just held our breaths every time she was on Mountain Road until she got to be an experienced driver," she said.

Across from the crash site, at a business called the Best Little Machine Shop, an electronic sign last week read: "God Bless Kala Austin. May She Rest in Peace."

Kevin Fisher, owner of the shop, said that each weekday, the rush hour traffic starts up at 3:30 p.m. and doesn't let up until after 6:30. He said most of the road's problems come down to speed and volume of traffic.

"There have been a lot of head-ons," he said. "People just fly down this road."

It's a sensitive subject in the area.

Katie Weaver, who works at the diesel-repair shop in the same building, said she shared classes with Kala at Chesapeake High. Her father, Bob, who owns the business, said two of his son's friends — Jason Coburn, 19, and Michael Medura, 21 — died in a 2007 crash just up the road from Kala's crash.

That crash, like many that have occurred on Mountain Road in the past decade, was listed by police as alcohol-related. In some cases, the crashes have involved drinking drivers or motorcyclists; in several, pedestrian victims were found to have been intoxicated. SHA figures show there were at least 107 fatal and nonfatal crashes related to drunken driving on the road from 2001 to 2010.

Waltemeyer, whose division patrols Pasadena, said Mountain Road and the surrounding area has the highest rate of drunken-driving arrests and crashes in the county. One reason, he suspects, is the abundance of taverns doing business on the road.

"That's a factor," he said. One reason police increase patrols along the road at night, he said, is that "we know at 2 a.m. those bars are going to let out."

Waltemeyer said police have made the road a priority for sobriety checkpoints and for speed enforcement. But he added that the road presents particular challenges for traffic enforcement, including a lack of shoulders on which to pull drivers over. He said officers try to direct violators to pull into parking lots but often have to use their public address systems when drivers stop in the roadway.

While local residents agree about the problems, few see any solutions.

"I hear people voicing their concerns for the number of accidents, but I don't hear people knowing how to change the road so it will work better," said Sandy Murphy, who works near the end of the peninsula.

County Councilman Derek J. Fink, a Republican whose district includes Mountain Road, said he's aware of concern about safety on the highway but is not aware of any organized effort to demand specific changes.

"I'm just not 100 percent positive where we can go with this at this point," Fink said.

Lee Starkloff, chief engineer of the highway agency district that includes Anne Arundel, said the fatality rate on Mountain Road is not disproportionate to that of other roads. But he also said it's difficult to compare it to other highways because of its unusual three-lane configuration for much of its length.

"It's basically a safe road," Starkloff said.

He noted that state records show no record of dangerous intersections. But overwhelmingly, crashes over the past two decades have involved single vehicles leaving the road and hitting fixed objects, or pedestrians who were hit while crossing or walking along the road.

Starkloff said the state has made safety-related improvements over the years, including replacing a flashing light with a full-color signal at Route 100 and installing traffic signals at several intersections. But he acknowledged that it poses some particular challenges.

One is that as traffic volumes have grown, there's been little room to expand the road. He said land in the area is mostly privately owned almost up to the pavement. He said that when the third lane was added in the mid-1990s for congestion relief, the project was accomplished only after overcoming fierce local opposition.

Starkloff said the state managed to get the third lane added largely by sacrificing shoulders rather than acquiring additional land — a solution he conceded wasn't beneficial for bicyclists or pedestrians.

Some residents say the road widening hasn't been entirely positive. Austin calls the middle lane "absolutely terrible" because it confuses drivers. Murphy says many people use it to speed, "so it's just brought on new problems."

Kipke said his constituents like the middle lane because it has improved traffic flow on the road significantly. "There's overwhelming support for the third lane because they know how bad it was before," he said.

Kipke said he has leaned on state highway officials to continue to make changes on Mountain Road and that he will continue to do so. But he said it won't be easy without more land and a lot of money.

"If we're going to improve the situation, we're going to have to buy property from literally hundreds of people," he said. Removing utility poles and trees to create buffer zones could cost more than $100 million, he added.

"There has never been support from the people in the peninsula to do that," he said.

Kipke said he does want to see the building Kala crashed into razed. Like her mother, he considers it a hazard. Starkloff said the highway agency would consider such a move.

The SHA engineer said another possible approach would be to launch a "corridor study" that would look at all aspects of traffic flow along Mountain Road and involve local residents in the decision-making process.

Donna Austin said she would welcome such an effort. She now works in the executive offices of the state transportation department, where she deals with high-ranking officials, including Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley. She said that when she returns to work, she intends to tell people about the dangers of Mountain Road.

"I'm going to start from the top," she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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