Traffic problems often build slowly and are tough to fix [Editorial]

The so-called deficiencies found by Harford County planners in the paperwork relating to traffic at the Bel Air South site where Walmart plans to build a store totaling 186,000 square feet aren't likely to have any effect on the long-term prospects for stopping the project.

Odds are the new Bel Air South store will be open and the old Walmart on Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon will be closed in time for the 2015 Christmas shopping season, if not sooner, traffic concerns notwithstanding.

This is not to be dismissive of traffic concerns in the heavily developed area of the Route 24 corridor between I-95 and Bel Air; congestion in the area is frustrating, to say the least. Furthermore, it isn't confined to the standard morning and evening commute rush hours; weekend traffic in the area also can be confounding.

The same can be said for another area where traffic concerns are being raised in an effort to stop or at least curtail planned development, the part of Fallston in the vicinity of the southern end of the Bel Air Bypass.

Traffic problems are epidemic in the heavily developed areas of Harford County, and new development slated for those areas will only make things worse. Abingdon, Bel Air South and Fallston-Benson, by the way, are hardly the only congested areas of Harford County. They're just the places where substantial new development is proposed, which highlights the traffic issues.

The problem with managing traffic, though, can be summarized fairly succinctly: D is a passing grade.

The highways departments of the state and county governments have specific ways of measuring whether an intersection is up to standard that roughly equate to the grades on an academic report card. For an intersection with a traffic light to be failing, for example, a driver can expect to wait through two or more red light cycles fairly consistently at key times of day. The definitions are more specific than that, and there are other problems that can go into giving an intersection a failing grade, but the bottom line is there are specific definitions for failing intersections and roadways.

Unfortunately for those of us who drive, the grading system is pass-fail with regard to whether new development can move ahead in a congested area. Certainly county or state planners will require a developer to pay for certain roadway improvements to mitigate problems at places where traffic already is a problem. Generally, though, the idea is to prevent an intersection or series of intersections from slipping into failure rather than improving them to a higher level of efficiency.

As often is the case in situations like this, everyone is to blame so no one is to blame.

Is it fair to ask a developer to pay for improvements to bring a D intersection up to a B, if already existing development is what brought highway efficiency to a low level? Probably not.

Is it fair to ask a developer to make substantial improvements in a relatively pristine area just because it's slated for more development in the future? That's going to be a tough sell, too.

Is it reasonable to expect the state or county to spend huge sums of money to correct problems that, at least in hindsight, appeared to have been preventable? Another tough sell.

The harsh reality is a house here and a business there don't have much of an effect, but as things are built in ones and twos, they add up and all too soon they become sixes and eights, 10s and 20s, and then there are traffic jams.

Ultimately, such things are the result of a terrible lack of planning and a ridiculous belief that a succession of small projects, each with minimal traffic impact, won't have much of a cumulative effect. The Bel Air South area long has been an example of the problem. The recently completed multimillion dollar overpass intersection of Route 24 with Route 924 and Tollgate Road is just the latest solution to the traffic bottleneck resulting from commuter traffic trying to get to I-95 from the greater Bel Air area.

The first solution was the construction of the modern four-plus-lane Route 24 to replace old Route 24, now known as Route 924. The second was a widening of Route 24 on the Edgewood side of I-95 and improvements to the on and off ramps. Turning lanes were added and lengthened. Then came the intersection overpass.

It's massive, but it probably isn't enough. If it were enough, no one would be worried about traffic impacts from the planned new Walmart.

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