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Howard County looks to tackle traffic congestion on Route 99

The county's Department of Transportation is in the early stages of an investigation into traffic and safety concerns along Route 99 between Marriottsville Road and U.S. 29.
The county's Department of Transportation is in the early stages of an investigation into traffic and safety concerns along Route 99 between Marriottsville Road and U.S. 29. (BSMG file photo)

When Suzanne Jones started her job as an analyst at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel 15 years ago, it was a smooth, 25-minute drive from her Ellicott City home near Route 99.

Now she said her commute is nearly double that.

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Jones attributed the additional time in the car to congestion along Route 99 that has steadily increased since she moved to the area 30 years ago.

“Within a few short years there was major development,” Jones said. “And we’re at kind of a tipping point at [Route] 99 where the road almost is not functioning for several hours a day.”

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The traffic backups, which Jones said are exacerbated by traffic at nearby Waverly Elementary School and Mt. Hebron High School, as well as an increase in the number of cars at rush hour, are at their worst near Route 99’s junctions with Route 29 and Marriottsville Road to Interstate 70.

Howard County’s Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre ended Monday night’s hearing on the proposed Bethany Glen development and cancelled the upcoming Wednesday date, announcing that she wanted the developer to submit new, more detailed site plans.

Concerns about the Route 99 corridor have reached the county’s Department of Transportation, which is in the first stages of an investigation into congestion and safety issues along roughly six miles of the roadway between Marriottsville Road and U.S. 29.

Planner David Cookson said the issues first came to the department’s attention a year ago during a community meeting. An investigation of the problems was added to the county’s list of 2018 projects.

A State Highway Administration spokeswoman said the agency is working with the county on the investigation, sharing its traffic accident data with the department for analysis.

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In 2017, there were 102 traffic accidents along the road, according to county police data; that number is down compared to 2016 when there were 136 accidents and 2015 when there were 137. However, Cookson said the department has yet to analyze the data to determine how many accidents were related to traffic on the road.

Cookson said the investigation will include gathering residents’ perspective on the problems, including from a Route 99 community open house earlier this month, and analyzing traffic and accident data.

Roughly 50 people attended the open house, Cookson said, many of whom raised the issue that it can take several minutes to turn out of their housing development onto Route 99 because of congestion, a problem Jones said she deals with regularly.

“What we have from residents is their stories [and] specific issues, and then we’ll start pulling the data in and how that works together,” he said. “We’ll look for patterns, are there areas where there’s multiple people saying the same thing, what’s the real challenge there?”

Solutions could include adjusting the timing of traffic signals or widening portions of the road’s shoulder, Cookson said.

The developer's latest draft proposal was presented before the seven-member panel Wednesday evening, where company vice president Jason Van Kirk and Bohler Engineering representatives shared plans to build 238 age-restricted housing units on the 67-acre property in Ellicott City.

The area surrounding Route 99 has seen significant housing development over the last several years with the construction of projects such as age-restricted Courtyards at Waverly Woods condominiums in Marriottsville and the retirement community Lutheran Village at Miller's Grant in Ellicott City.

In the last several months, residents have spoken out against Elm Street Development’s Bethany Glen project, a 238-unit age-restricted community proposed for 67 acres near I-70. Jones said she worries the development, if approved, would bring congestion issues in the area to a head.

The project, which is seeking a special zoning permit, is under consideration by the county’s Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre, who has ruled out testimony during the hearings related to traffic.

Elm Street Development Vice President Jason Van Kirk said his team completed the required preliminary traffic study before submitting subdivision plans to the county in 2016, but declined to provide details of the study given LeFaivre’s moratorium on traffic testimony. In response to the notion that Bethany Glen could put the Route 99 area at a “tipping point,” Van Kirk questioned that logic.

“When you look at the amount of active adult trips that are generated [from age restricted housing] versus what’s generated from single family homes and how much is on the roads already, I question whether that’s a valid concern or not,” he said.

Jones said she worries increased traffic could bring safety and traffic issues, similar to those on Route 32, which is undergoing a $37.5 million state and county improvement project.

More than 30,000 cars drive on Route 32 every day, while nearly 16,000 cars drive Route 99 daily, according to state data, a number that’s been steadily increasing by a few hundred cars annually since 2008, when just over 15,000 drove on the road daily.

County Executive Allan Kittleman said he’s pleased to see the collaboration between the state and county on project.

“Route 99 has been a difficult road for many years,” he said.

Kittleman said previous conversations with homeowners prompted him to expedite improvements on I-70, where it’s been proposed to add one lane in each direction between U.S. 29 and Route 40. Kittleman said widening I-70 could also help alleviate traffic on Route 99, where some drivers head to avoid congestion on I-70.

The department hopes to complete a report by the end of the summer, Cookson said.

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