Ed Walter may be the most powerful man in Howard County politics -- but he's not the county executive or even an elected official. He's the county's traffic engineer, its purveyor of traffic signals, lane markers and speed humps.
Insignificant by themselves, these traffic devices collectively carry the weight of public opinion and, many believe, the difference at the ballot box.
Middle income or wealthy, Geo or Jaguar owner, all citizens who drive, cross the street or send children to school have to put up with the frustrations -- and perils -- of neighborhood traffic.
If there is a snarl or a threat to safety, no Howard County Council or Columbia village board member is immune from blame if it's not fixed.
And in the state's fastest-growing county, there can be dozens of traffic flash points at any given moment. Failing to solve those problems could have grave consequences for politicians -- considering that the county receives about 3,000 complaints about traffic yearly.
"I get more complaints about speeding than probably anything else," says County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
Countywide, officials are bracing for a political battle over what to do about traffic conditions that threaten to worsen even as the state warns that there is little or no money for new local road projects.
A team of consultants recently told the county that virtually every intersection on Route 175 between Interstate 95 and Columbia fails when it comes to smooth rush-hour traffic. Meanwhile, 10 intersections are considered high-accident locations, according to state standards.
Yet on the back streets, citizens complain that the traffic runs too smoothly and too fast.
To date, neighbors have asked officials to do something to slow traffic on 60 separate streets and intersections.
To deal with those areas Mr. Ecker appointed a committee to examine how well speed humps, roundabouts and other approaches are working in Columbia's Longfellow and Jeffers Hill neighborhoods and in Ellicott City's North St. John's Lane area.
In the end, however, it is Mr. Walter -- not Mr. Ecker -- who has the authority to make such changes. Under county law, the traffic engineer is the sole arbiter of traffic decisions on any public road not under State Highway Administration authority.
The law was enacted in 1975 to keep politicians from putting up unneeded traffic controls simply to win votes. The traffic engineer's independence allows him to stand up to public pressure and protects him from being forced to do something he believes won't help.
"In some jurisdictions, the political pressures are very intense," says Mr. Walter. He cites as an example a street in western Baltimore County where stop signs are lined up like dominoes -- and frequently ignored. On the other hand, he says, "With the power that I have, I do a lot of praying that I'm doing the right thing."
That power sometimes frustrates elected officials. When citizens demand a traffic light, Mr. Ecker sometimes finds himself in the embarrassing position of explaining that he can't simply order that the light be installed.
"I can't do it -- even though I get blamed for it being done or not being done," says Mr. Ecker, who would like to see the law changed. "I think that's wrong. The general public doesn't believe it, they don't understand it."
Still, it's Mr. Walter who finds himself on the firing line each week. Last week, for example, he was discussing a tricky turn in Columbia's Wilde Lake neighborhood with its residents. The week before, the problem was a small bottleneck in Owen Brown village.
Mr. Walter says that everyone with a driver's license is a traffic engineer. But his credentials go a little deeper: a master's degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a career as chief engineer of Baltimore City and years of private practice in semiretirement before coming to Howard County seven years ago.
Last month, he published an article, "Suburban Residential Traffic Calming," in the traffic engineer's national trade magazine, ITE Journal.
In some cases, Mr. Walter's academic approach to calming traffic does little to soothe residents.
At a recent meeting with the Owen Brown village board over a bottleneck at Cradlerock Way and Homespun Lane in the Elkhorn neighborhood, he heard a familiar refrain: A stop sign would help.
"That's about the dumbest way to calm traffic that I've ever heard of," he said later. Unnecessary stop signs lead motorists to accelerate, then slam on their brakes. His studies show that 26 percent of the traffic doesn't stop at all in those situations.
In addition, there are technical requirements, such as traffic volume, that must be met for stop signs or traffic lights to be installed. If they are not met, the county could be blamed in a lawsuit for accidents.
Instead of stop signs, Mr. Walter favors putting obstacles on the county's side streets.
Speed humps force cars over a small hill that makes speeding uncomfortable, but doesn't damage vehicles, as speed bumps can. Roundabouts put a circle of landscaped concrete at an intersection, forcing motorists to slow down to drive around them.
Yet residents remain emotionally committed to stop signs and stoplights, and Mr. Walter has to contend with that. The recent Owen Brown meeting was typical.
"We're trying to slow down traffic on the raceway," lamented Richard Diener, an Owen Brown Village Board member. "Stop signs would help."
Mr. Walter shook his head, smiled faintly and corrected him: "Well, they don't."
Eventually, Mr. Walter hopes that subdivisions will be built with narrow, curvy streets that force motorists to drive slowly. Current county regulations require just the opposite: Streets have to be wide and straight enough to handle a minimum speed.
Until changes in design take place, Mr. Walter will continue to brave the public hearings and preach the virtues of speed humps and roundabouts. He hopes to get some ammunition from the committee that, for the past six months, has been studying how well those devices have worked in the county's three test areas.
"We need about a half a year to finish. I think by next summer we'll have all the answers," Mr. Walter says with a grin. "I hope so, or otherwise they'll run Mr. Ecker and myself out of town on a rail."