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Pyatt: Resolving traffic issues in Mount Airy won’t be easy or inexpensive

I’ve often wondered whether good local planning is due to careful reasoning or due to luck and good or bad fortune. The reopening of the T. J. Maxx and Home Goods stores in Mount Airy — with a wait time of an hour-and-a-half to get into the store on the Nov. 10 opening — is a good case study.

The shopping center for these two stores is located just off of Md. 27 and Twin Arch Drive. I was on our Town Council when this shopping center was approved in the early 1990s. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary at that time. Both the physical boundary and the population within the town were roughly half of the 2019 values. There were essentially no citizens’ complaints, and it went pretty smoothly.

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Since then the intersection of Md. 27 — also a corridor to commuters going south — and Twin Arch Road and the nearness of Interstate-70 has created a magnet for shopping. At the same time, the traffic at this intersection is extremely heavy, and stymies further development that is in the Town’s latest Master Plan.

If one had a crystal ball in the early 1990s there probably would have been a “whoa!” in the process. We also didn’t have Alexis, and we couldn’t ask her for the answer.

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Some estimates to resolve the traffic problem in this intersection run in the tens of millions, and none of the governmental entities, e.g. the town, the county or the state — which relies heavily on county government to “prioritize” projects, so for practical purposes they’re one and the same — seem to have the resources.

In that regard, we’re probably not that different from the rest of the metropolitan region. Folks want to live here, like Carroll County — the schools are good, taxes are moderate, and there is still some homebody charm — but have to go south to get good paying jobs.

I have probably laid out the background pretty well, but the path forward is difficult and will require a lot of political maneuvering and, interactions within town committees.

We have a lot of smart and informed citizens, and there are several committees to represent business interests, streets and roads, among others, as well as the Planning Commission. Then there are the elected council members.

I watch this dynamic group of mostly volunteers and am impressed that they really understand the issues and really want to make their home/nest as desirable as possible. I suppose they want to increase their resale value, but I think the character and integrity of the process seems most important.

I have worn several of these hats in the past, but it was much easier then, and it’s often fascinating to see what really makes people tick. Some of our volunteers have been diligently plugging away for a long time.

I have somewhat of a stake in this, since I live with shouting distance of T.J. Maxx and Home Goods and walk there several times a week. I’m frugal with my money, and get more exercise than shirts and pants.

Mount Airy has a Downtown Master Plan with the goal of increasing utilization of limited terrain, some limits on parking and narrow streets to get people to do more shopping. Yet less than a mile away the parking lots are bursting.

I guess it all depends on who owns the property and gets the rental income. Our town and its residents have reached some tipping point of growth from the standpoint of how we can move people in and around with the existing roads.

The dilemma is to get the road improvements and better traffic flow without the ancillary problems of more development, since the road improvements with a developing parcel is usually part of the approval process,and the costs are not borne by the taxpayers. In the end, the overall, or townwide, traffic flow costs are unmet.

I don’t know if there is a formalized process to evaluate this. For example, let’s say it would cost $20 million (based on very preliminary engineering assessments assessments) to really address Md. 27 traffic issues. This works out to somewhere in the very rough neighborhood of $8,000 per family. It is surprising how little road improvement can be made even for a million dollars. That’s why we get into the situation I’m describing.

In any event, I will continue my daily walks and really check out the deals at T.J. Maxx.

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Dave Pyatt writes from Mount Airy.

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