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[Editorial] Boulton Street traffic light for Bel Air one of a few weak options

With what appear to be the best of intentions, the Bel Air Town Commissioners took an action this week that is likely to make an already bad traffic situation worse.

For many years, residents of English Country Manor, the pleasant little community off of Gateway Drive behind Harford Mall, have complained to the town about what they perceive as the need for a traffic light at the intersection of Gateway Drive and Boulton Street. The commissioners on Monday approved an $85,000 contract to install the light, and it could operational by May, the town's public works director said.

In its current state, the intersection obliges traffic at the four-way intersection to stop only when exiting Harford Mall or coming out of Gateway Drive, a situation with a strong potential to result in long waits. Putting a traffic light at the intersection will certainly change that by clearly regulating who can go and who has to stop.

The problem is the light will be maybe two dozen car lengths from another traffic light on Boulton Street where Harford Mall and the Mall Annex (location of Best Buy) access the street. A short distance on the other side, Boulton Street comes to an end at a traffic light at Tollgate Road. Then there's the traffic light on Boulton at Route 24. It's a lot of traffic lights for a short section of roadway that has essentially been turned into little more than a mall access road, though it remains a town-owned thoroughfare.

The unfortunate reality is that the traffic light solution is probably the most inexpensive option in a limited selection of weak choices. Possibly the best way to deal with the problem would be to reconfigure all of the shopping center and mall accesses from Boulton Street. Too many different businesses have been in operation for too long and accessing the roadway at too many spots to make coordinating such an effort anything more than a fool's errand.

The Gateway Drive intersection traffic compounds weak traffic access from the shopping centers and other commercial properties, and Gateway Drive itself is home to dozens of businesses, as well as the Bel Air Post Office for both the 21014 and 21015 ZIP codes, plus two large condominium communities, English Country Manor and the smaller but growing Legacy at Gateway.

One of the key elements of this situation, that too often goes unspoken in any public discussion about it, is that many folks long ago started using the light at the Harford Mall Annex (Office Depot, PetSmart and Best Buy) as a guaranteed way to access Boulton Street. Many who use the Bel Air Post Office, conveniently tucked behind Best Buy, long ago chose to drive through the mall annex parking lot as a way to ensure they can safely turn left onto Boulton Street from the area fed by Gateway Drive. It might not be an ideal solution, but sometimes people make do in bad situations.

The harsh reality is a traffic light at Gateway and Boulton probably will give the people who live in the Gateway Drive communities easier access to their neighborhoods, but it is likely to tie up traffic headed for some of Harford County's busiest stores. This has the potential, of course, to make those stores less appealing and less busy.

Possibly, if that happens, there will be pressure on the business community as a whole to deal in a more complete way with a bad situation.

Until then, shoppers, get ready to wait.

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