York Road is the main thoroughfare in downtown Towson and those commuters who travel it on a daily basis know the congestion around the intersection of York and Burke Avenue during rush hour.
The crossroads have been deemed by the county as a failing intersection, meaning congestion is a critical issue because the crossroads cannot handle the amount of vehicles it sees at a given time.
However, Baltimore County officials say the stretch of York Road just north of Burke Avenue is exempt from a development moratorium in place near failing intersections — according to its annual Basic Services Map, which designates infrastructure and traffic needs across the county.
Now, with a development proposal to build 101 York, a 611-bed student housing project on that stretch of York Road, the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations is lobbying the County Council to amend the map to accurately reflect the sources of traffic congestion.
"At best, the way [the county does] the traffic maps is inconsistent, and at worse, there's incorrect information in it," Paul Hartman, president of GTCCA, said.
Traffic maps are part of the overall Basic Services Map which the council passes annually. The traffic map delineates, among other things, an area around failing intersections, known as a commuter shed, that contributes to the congestion.
Hartman said that at every other failing intersection in the county, the commuter shed is a concentric circle or square configuration. But the "Towson Triangle"— the area between York Road, Towsontown Boulevard and West Burke Avenue — is not included as contributing to traffic at the York Road/Burke Avenue intersection.
County officials said that the 1979 county law that establishes the Basic Services Map to deal with infrastructure is the basis for the perceived abnormality. That law grants exceptions to, among other things, developments in areas approved by the Planning Board in town center districts or community plans up to the 1979 law's passage date. The applicable community plan for Towson was the 1975 Towson Community Plan, which delineated the Towson Triangle as part of the town center district.
A revised 1992 Towson Community Plan said Basic Service exemptions should be dropped if a certain set of five transportation criteria was met — which they were not. The property is also not zoned as a town center, but the 1979 law is binding, county Planning Director Andrea Van Arsdale said.
"We are legally obligated to follow the law," Van Arsdale said. "The law outlines the conditions to the exemption, and that's what we're following despite what might be said in the community plan because the community plans and the master plans are not binding. They're guidelines — and we must follow the law."
The issue came into focus because of the planned 101 York development, which would house more than 600 students plus retail.
Hartman also lobbied the county to change the map in 2013. But he said he was never given a clear reason why the map looked the way it did. Hartman said three reasons were provided for the intersection not being included in the commuter shed: that the area is a commercial revitalization zone; it's part of the town center zoning district; and it's part of a community plan.
Despite the county pointing to the 1979 law as its reasoning, he says the maps are misleading because some areas in commuter sheds that have been exempted are not reflected in the map.
For example, the Towson Green townhouse development opened in July 2012 inside the commuter shed for the failing York and Burke intersection. The development had been granted an exemption because of an agreement with the community about parking and traffic issues. On the map, the area containing Towson Green is not shown as exempt from being part of the commuter shed the same way the Towson Triangle is.
Hartman said in his letter and also told the County Council at a public hearing on the map on Monday, April 7, that confusion could be cleared up on the issue by not indicating exemptions to the commuter shed on the traffic map, but instead having them on an overlay to be viewed separately. Hartman believes this could give developers a better idea of traffic issues in the area.
However, Van Arsdale said the county is trying to be clear in its maps to both the community and developers.
"We're trying to be honest and forthright with the maps and that's why they're drawn that way," she said.
Hartman, along with two representatives from the Towson American Legion, lobbied the council to consider changing the map. The council will vote on May 5 on the map, which was sent to them via a unanimous Planning Board vote.
Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, said he is waiting to hear back from the planning department and public works department, which he asked "for a detailed explanation of why the traffic shed looks the way it does," he said.
"Up until the past year, we've had very little new development, and the congestion has still gotten worse," Marks said. "It seems to me you'd want to start bringing these students out of the neighborhoods and onto campus, or close to campus. We also need to be looking at transit, biking and walking wherever is possible."