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Annapolis is stuck with Forest Drive congestion

Annapolis is stuck with Forest Drive congestion
Traffic builds up on Tuesday afternoon on Forest Drive at South Cherry Grove Lane and Hilltop Lane. (Matthew Cole / Capital Gazette)

If you use Forest Drive daily, you know the drill. Work's over and its time to head home — and spend a half-hour or more sitting in traffic on Annapolis' own little beltway.

And while it isn't as bad as the Capital or Baltimore beltways, Forest Drive is still a pain in the neck.

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Noelle Fell drives the road most days, commuting to work from her home near its eastern end. She needs to use it to reach Aris T. Allen Boulevard, then Route 50.

"People tend to wait until the last minute to move out of the lane that becomes turn-only at Hilltop (Lane), causing backup," Fell said.

"At least once a week I see a pedestrian trying to cross the street, not in a crosswalk, and cars stopping to let them. (It's) obnoxious and dangerous."

Traffic along the county road can be hit or miss. Some days it's a breeze, as the lights and traffic sync up nicely. But at peak hours, things can slow to a crawl as cars and trucks and buses cram onto the only route down the Annapolis Neck peninsula.

And forget about getting anywhere if there is an accident. That can shut down most of the peninsula for hours.

Despite multiple efforts over two decades to ease traffic congestion, Annapolis and Anne Arundel County officials are continuing to study Forest Drive in search of solutions. A new county review is due out this month.

Meanwhile, there have been calls for a halt to new development that will add more traffic until the city can do its own study. But they appear to be going nowhere.

So, is it too late to fix Forest Drive?

Most observers agree any improvements — especially meaningful ones — will be difficult.

"We have screwed it up now, but we can tweak it and keep (traffic) as it is now," said David Humphreys, executive director of Annapolis Regional Transportation Management Association, a membership group that works to improve transportation,

The road, Humphreys said, is "running at capacity during peak hours. Trips that would take minutes can take hours."

ARTMA has lobbied the city to stop development and do a comprehensive analysis of traffic and planned development on the corridor.

It has never been done, although it was recommended in the city comprehensive plan drafted in 2009. City officials said they have requested money for it from the state and county.

Divided roadway

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Divided responsibilty has long been one of Forest Drive's problems.

It's a county road. But the city is responsible for adjoining side roads, developments and residential areas.

A county review of the road — the Major Intersections and Important Facilities Transportation Study — is expected to be completed next month.

Officials say it could help set priorities for ways to improve traffic, possibly including increased pedestrian and bicycle access and finding funds to connect roads along the corridor.

This spring, County Executive Steve Schuh announced funding to improve another congested peninsular corridor, Mountain Road in Pasadena. The $23 million project is supposed to widen and revitalize a one-mile stretch over the next six years. The first phase was funded in the budget passed last week.

There aren't any similar plans to widen Forest Drive.

But that might not be the best solution anyway, said Chris Trumbauer, the county councilman who represents the area.

If the road is widened, traffic will just increase until it hits its limit again, Trumbauer said.

What's needed, he said, is a city-county partnership to look at and slow down development, while coming up with longer-term solutions.

"You can add me to the chorus of voices (saying) that we have to stop the bleeding," Trumbauer said.

Meanwhile, city officials have been focusing on dealing with traffic flow after accidents.

Mayor Mike Pantelides said there no major city-county joint efforts on Forest Drive, but that he doesn't rule out his partnership with Schuh — the two have stressed cooperation between their jurisdictions — benefiting future discussions.

City officials said discussions between county and state officials have led to better responses to traffic. County police help direct traffic away from accident areas while the state posts congestion alerts on its highway signs.

An additional study of where traffic originates along Forest Drive, set to be completed next year, could help focus efforts to make improvements, city officials said.

Those improvements won't be as simple as making the road bigger or putting in a new thoroughfare, said Sally Nash, the city's chief of comprehensive planning.

Accident response must be balanced with general traffic growth along the road, Nash said.

As bad as the accident-spawned traffic snarls can be, she said, they are rare next to the daily peak hour congestion.

"It is important to think of it as a resource issue," Nash said. "We could make it so that what we plan for is the worst emergency we could imagine for Forest Drive.

"That means there is a 10-lane freeway going down Annapolis Neck Road. My point is there are trade-offs to be prepared for these kinds of emergencies."

More to come ...

As the governments plan and study, pending development continues to frustrate and anger residents of the Forest Drive corridor.

The Crystal Spring, Parkside Preserve and Chesapeake Grove housing projects would likely add hundreds of additional trips, even though the developers would have to pay for traffic improvements.

None of those projects has yet won final approval, and their impact is still undetermined.

The city requires developers to maintain the current level of traffic near their projects and requires a traffic study only when it's estimated a project would add 400 or more trips to nearby roads.

That means smaller developments can be approved in the city without an analysis of long-term impact, Humphreys said.

Pending legislation would lower the threshold for a study from 400 to 250 daily trips — meaning more studies and, most likely, more developer-subsidized improvements.

The city Planning Commission has had a hearing on the bill and recommends its approval, but commission Chairman David Iams said it could be stronger.

"It should be less than 250, but 250 is a step in the right direction," Iams said.

Alan Hyatt, an Annapolis lawyer who represents developers, said pushing back on new projects isn't appropriate.

Forest Drive, Hyatt said, is a major road that cuts through the city. Those residents who reside along it chose to live there, he said.

Those who own land along Forest Drive have property rights the city and county can't take away, Hyatt said. And new development, he said, contributes impact fees that can lead to road improvements.

"A person on the far end of Forest Drive shouldn't be able to tell a landowner on the other side whether they can build," Hyatt said.

The upcoming county study's results will be part of a new county Transportational Functional Master Plan, a priority list of needs throughout the county.

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Creating that list is going to take some time.

"There may not be any immediate project," said county Transportation Planning Administrator Brian Ulrich. We'll "try to make our game plan to address these issues county wide piece by piece."

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