Each day 55,000 drivers zip past Ken Lynch's restaurant on the way to and from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

But these days, fewer of them are stopping to eat.

Since last fall, when the State Highway Administration replaced the traffic signal along U.S. 50 at Cape St. Claire Road with a cloverleaf interchange, business has dropped off 30 percent at Lynch's Sizzler restaurant.

"The light used to stop the traffic in the view ofthe store when it was red. Now, that red light is gone," he said.

So too, are many customers.

Merchants along U.S. 50 near the bay bridge say they saw a sharp drop in business when state highway officials replaced the traffic signals at Old Mill Bottom Road and at St. Clair Road with cloverleaf interchanges. The interchanges, which costa total $21.6 million, meant motorists could speed by the shops and stores without slowing down, giving them less incentive for stopping.

"If you don't know where you're going, you'll miss it, you'll miss us all. It's very confusing," Lynch said.

Robert D. Douglass, deputy chief engineer for the State Highway Administration, said the interchanges were planned for decades and intended to bring a smoother flow of traffic and safer conditions for the motorists who travel that stretch each day.

"The intent was to get those lights out of there, and eliminate all the left-turn lanes to make things as safe as possible," he said. "It'll save lives, it'll save time and it'll mean less congestion."

Douglass, who has been met with the merchants repeatedly in recent weeks, said new highway signs will be erected "within the next two weeks" to alert travelers to the shops.

"We want to do whatever's possible to help those people," he said.

Most merchants acknowledge that the road is safer, and that they knew for years that traffic changes were planned.

"One has got to be realisticthat human life is more valuable than the almighty dollar," said JayLowry, who owns the Whitehall Sunoco on Whitehall Road.

He credited highway officials for listening to merchants and said although he and others have lost business, that may be due to the recession as much as the road conditions.

"People just aren't going out to restaurants as as much, they're not traveling as much, they aren't drinkingas much," he said.

Customers can still get to the shops. But the route is an unfamiliar one that involves leaving U.S. 50 either at the Cape St. Claire or at the Sandy Point exits and taking access roadsfrom there. Merchants say without adequate signs, drivers find it easier to just keep moving.

"There's barriers and guard rails and new traffic patterns; no one knows exactly how to get from there to here," said Laura Nance, assistant manager at the nearby Denny's restaurant. She said the changes have meant a 30 percent drop in business.

John Cerasani, who runs the Ski Haus, said he feels the highway administration worked with nearby residential communities, but shortchanged businesses.

Cerasani said his business is down about 25 percent. He said he usually does about $500,000 in sales each December, traditionally the busiest month for ski equipment sales. But he said sales for last December were down about 50 percent.

"It's not the recession, it's what they did to this highway," he said. "Government should not under any circumstances be hurting businesses, and that's what is happening here."

He said he has contacted elected representatives, has launched a petition drive and met with state highway officials to get better signs erected and reopen an access ramp closed lastfall that once connected his shop and others to U.S. 50.

"Do theyexpect us to lay down and die. No way," he said.

But reopening closed access ramps could be difficult.

Douglass said he is committed to not reopening the exit ramps, which connected either side of U.S. 50 with parallel access roads, because that would mean dangerous driving conditions. The ramp on the north side was closed last fall, and the southern one was closed last week, he said.

He said drivers speed along U.S. at about 55 or 60 mph, too fast for such exit ramps.Motorists were hitting the exit ramp on the south side at about 40 mph, he said, adding that numerous near-miss accidents occurred and led to complaints from neighborhood residents.

Residents who live near the exit ramp said it had them fearing for their lives.

"That (access ramp) was extremely dangerous, and we were all glad that it closed," said Carol Series, who lives in Woods Landing on the north side of U.S. 50.

"We were all eagerly awaiting its closure," she said.

Series said if SHA were to reopen the access road ramps, the move would prompt protests from residents.

"It's a terrible problem,"she said. "Nobody wants anyone to go out of business, but it's frightening to think of having to face that traffic problem again."

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