When Walter M. Russell rises at 5 a.m., only a few headlights pierce the darkness on Route 140 outside his house.
While he dresses and shaves, the traffic builds. By the time he leaves to meet his friends for 6 a.m. breakfast at McDonald's in Westminster, something that resembles a single creature with hundreds of unblinking white eyes is crawling east along the highway.
In the afternoon, when rush-hour traffic is on his side of the road, "You sit and wait. You wait for the gap. You'll get so many seconds, and you can slip out," Russell said.
Waiting to slip out is a fact of life for the people who live along the highway or patronize businesses there.
An average of 48,525 cars a day travel Route 140, Carroll County's only divided highway. More than 34,000 commuters create an eastbound rush hour from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and a westbound rush hour from 4 p.m. to 6: 30 p.m.
It's going to get worse.
Traffic on Route 140 has increased steadily for 20 years, making the highway more heavily traveled than Baltimore County's busy York Road. The State Highway Administration predicts that by 2020, traffic will swell to 72,000 cars a day on Route 140 unless a Westminster bypass -- not funded for construction -- diverts some of them.
"What's happening here is that we're creating a Ritchie Highway. It's just a mess," said Richard Logue, owner of Maid to Perfection maid service on westbound Route 140 near the Bethel Road intersection.
For residents and businesses whose driveways open onto the highway, coping with traffic congestion means waiting 10 minutes or more to pull onto the road. In the neighborhood between Reese and Bethel roads, drivers wait for traffic lights in Westminster, three miles west, or at Sandymount Road, one mile east, to break traffic.
"Actually, a road like this shouldn't have all the [driveways of] houses and businesses pulling out onto the road," Russell said. "It was fine when the road was built, but it's not fine now because people travel at 60 or 65 miles an hour."
Russell, 82, has lived in Reese all his life. As a child, he walked to school across a field on his father's farm that is now under Route 140. He built his house in 1951, the year Route 140 opened. He used the road to commute to his job at aircraft manufacturer Glenn L. Martin Co. in eastern Baltimore County, driving 75 miles a day for 30 years. After he retired 34 years ago, he bought a school bus and picked up pupils on Route 140. He is still a bus contractor, but his daughter drives the bus.
Danger from buses
Russell is concerned about the possibility of an accident as school buses pick up youngsters during morning rush hour. Buses complete their afternoon runs before the evening rush begins.
Bus stops on Route 140 are in deceleration lanes or on the shoulder, but David E. Reeve, assistant in pupil transportation with the county Board of Education, points out two dangers: drivers failing to stop when the bus flashes its red lights, and drivers stopping when the bus has pulled off to the shoulder.
Drivers who stop when the bus isn't flashing its lights risk a rear-end collision, Reeve said. "The kids are going to be all right, but the motoring public is in danger," he said.
Reeve said the pupil transportation office receives occasional reports of near-misses, but no serious accidents involving school buses have been reported on Route 140 between Finksburg and Westminster in three years.
Congestion also adds time to commuting, which can be tiring, even for young workers. Heidi Utz, 25, a Maryland State Police secretary, has a 75-mile round trip from her home in the 1700 block of Route 140 to her job at the Waterloo barracks in Howard County.
Utz leaves the house at 6:30 a.m., waits 10 to 15 minutes to merge into the eastbound traffic at the Reese Road crossover, deals with traffic clog on Interstate 795 from Franklin Boulevard to Owings Mills Town Center and on the Baltimore Beltway from Interstate 70 to Interstate 95. She arrives at work at 7: 30 a.m. The evening commute is easier, usually taking 40 minutes.
"It's very tiring. I'm usually pretty exhausted by the time I get home," Utz said.
In her view, traffic flow has gotten a little better since Route 100 opened in Howard County to link I-95 and Route 29. But only a little. "The roads are just not big enough for the amount of traffic," she said.
Suggestions from residents and business owners near Reese include putting a traffic light at Bethel Road and building a Westminster bypass to reduce congestion.
Chris Maier, business manager of CMC Computers in the 1800 block of Route 140 near Bethel Road, would like to see a traffic light at Bethel Road.
CMC computer engineers returning to Westminster after 3: 30 p.m. face backups in the crossover to Bethel Road and have to wait to join westbound traffic, Maier said.
Congestion creates higher costs, Maier said. "Anybody who's got a service person sitting out on the road, a plumber or a technician, while they're sitting there in traffic, that clock is running. It's costing more to live in the county," he said.
The State Highway Administration has not received requests for a traffic light at Bethel Road and has no plans to install one. "But we'd be willing to meet with people," said Rose Muhlhausen, the administration's public affairs officer.
The planned Westminster bypass might help, "but it's not going to be a solution if it takes four or five years to create it," said maid service owner Logue.
$3.1 million on planning
It probably will take longer than four or five years. Carroll County state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Republican, led county officials who voiced their frustration in September to state transportation officials over the lack of road improvements in Carroll. The state has spent $3.1 million planning the Westminster bypass, but has not earmarked money to build it in the next six years. The highway administration hopes to designate a route for the bypass by spring.
The highway administration is conducting a study of the estimated 150 to 180 driveways and shopping center entrances that open directly onto Route 140 between I-795 and Leidy Road near Westminster.
"We're looking at ways to decrease the conflict points along 140, but this is not denying anyone access. It's just looking at what's ++ out there," said Mary M. Deitz, highway administration regional planner.
Deitz declined to discuss details of the study until it is presented to the county commissioners. She said that as properties are developed, "We'd like to take the opportunity to combine some of these accesses. It's not like the state is going to come in and build anything."
The highway administration might be able to combine some accesses into service roads to keep traffic flowing as volumes increase, Deitz said.
She said that the county Planning Department is responsible for allowing driveways and shopping center entrances to open directly onto Route 140. In 1977, then state highway administration officials overrode Carroll planners and approved additional direct accesses onto Route 140 for 140 Village Shopping Center.
"If the highway administration supersedes the public works agreement, it could have serious consequences for the planned orderly development along Maryland 140 in Carroll County," said George A. Grier, then administrative assistant to the county commissioners.
Pub Date: 1/02/99
Sun news researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this article.