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Seeing red over traffic signals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To Columbians like Mary Monfre, there are too many traffic lights in the planned town.

"I live 1.6 miles from [U.S.] 29. I have to go through six stoplights, and I [usually] have to stop at four of them," Monfre said. "I just get berserk when I have to stop every 10 seconds."

But farther north, near Ellicott City, Becky Hall wants a new light and can't get one. She's frustrated, she said, waiting daily on Breconshire Road for an opening in the heavy stream of vehicles on Centennial Lane.

To the west, in Clarksville, Bill Willis complains that commuters from Montgomery County line up 100 deep some mornings on Ten Oaks Road at the Route 108 light, waiting to get onto U.S. 32. "It's a big mess, and a mess headed for disaster in my opinion," he said.

Traffic lights -- love 'em or hate 'em -- came with Howard County's transformation from farm country to bustling suburban mecca. Combined, county and state governments have more than 150 lights in Howard now, with several more due this year.

Where, 30 years ago, one or two traffic lights in Wilde Lake sufficed for Columbia, today there are eight lights on Broken Land Parkway alone, from The Mall in Columbia to Route 32 -- not counting turn lanes.

"I think at this point getting out of Columbia is a horror," David R. Zeitzer said, while conceding that 90,000 people live in the town today, compared with 3,000 in 1969. "It takes a lot longer to get around," he said.

And he should know. Zeitzer has lived in Columbia nearly as long as the town has existed. He's lived in three villages and served on two village boards.

Monfre said it takes her eight minutes to leave Columbia but only 13 minutes more to travel the 14 additional miles to her job near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "In Columbia, to my way of thinking, everything seems to be geared to make people stop." As more signals are added, "it's a race to gridlock," she complained.

Diane Schwarzman and her boss, William F. Malone, run the county's traffic-light empire, while state highway officials control lights on the larger roads.

The detailed, often sensitive calculations involved in controlling people's movements on county roads are a measure of how complex life has become.

Schwarzman said Hall can't have the light she wants because there isn't sufficient traffic coming from her side street to justify one. The county uses 11 criteria -- including traffic volume, school crossings, pedestrian traffic and accident history -- to evaluate an intersection for a light. Qualifying under just one criterion will result in a light, she said.

The county rates intersections' level of service from "A" to "F," which corresponds to the length of time -- ranging from five to 60 seconds -- that a vehicle must wait.

Hall said she has lived in her neighborhood for 14 years, "and it's worse now than ever. You don't want to be there when [Centennial High] school lets out," she said, because the teen-agers tend to speed and show off leaving school. "I feel [the county] ought to do something," she said.

It pays to obey speed limit

County traffic engineers say they time most lights to get people through as quickly as possible -- provided drivers obey speed limits.

The timing on Broken Land Parkway, for example, is set for people driving 45 mph, the legal limit. People who breeze under a green light at 60 mph hoping to beat the next light will have to stop at a red light instead. Schwarzman knows this is true because she timed the lights, and she drove the route with a stopwatch and checked it. "The smart ones go the set speed. The ones who speed have to slow down at the next intersection," Schwarzman said.

Monfre's not convinced, though. "If you go 60, you might be on the tail end of [a green light]," she said.

Schwarzman said she has heard a few unusual complaints from drivers, too. One insisted she was regularly stuck for eight minutes at a red light. Schwarzman said this is not possible: The lights are equipped with automatic signaling devices, and when something malfunctions, they start flashing or go dark until police and repair people arrive, the engineers said. "One lady told me she would run the red light when turning left from Snowden River Parkway into McGaw Road because she just had a certain amount of time for lunch and she didn't think she should have to wait. I tried to explain to her that you can't run red lights," Schwarzman said.

In Wilde Lake, Malone and Schwarzman said, they worked very carefully with the community when they added traffic signals behind The Mall in Columbia last fall, and more recently when they removed easy-access turn lanes in and out of Twin Rivers Road at the intersection with Governor Warfield Parkway.

Drivers who need to enter and exit tiny residential side streets near the intersection couldn't, because of the speed the turn lanes allowed. Now, with lights controlling the traffic, the movement is a bit slower but safer, the engineers said. But some, like Zeitzer, don't like it. To them, it's just something else slowing them down.

A tip from the pro

Schwarzman, who has been a traffic engineer for 10 years, revealed a secret for people tired of sitting in long evening rush-hour lines on Little Patuxent Parkway, waiting to turn left onto eastbound Broken Land Parkway.

The light at South Entrance Road, where the central library stands, is timed half as long -- a 48-second cycle -- as the others on Little Patuxent, which take 96 seconds to complete a cycle. Drivers can turn left there instead, reach U.S. 29 and enter Broken Land from the ramp, avoiding two lights, she said.

The longest light in the county -- with a 180-second cycle -- is at the nexus of the circular Columbia Gateway Drive where afternoon rush-hour traffic flows out of the office park all at once to Route 175.

Intersections with turn-lane signals can complicate things, too. At the most-traveled spots, such as along Route 175, for example, the lights might control each of the four directions, plus the left-turn lanes separately -- with up to eight phases of signal operations.

This fall, partly because of motorists' calls, the county plans to add traffic lights on Harpers Farm Road at the entrance to Hobbit's Glen Golf Course, and on Snowden River Parkway near Route 108, where a hotel, gas station, offices and bank are being built.

"We really do learn a lot from citizens who ... complain," said Malone, chief of the traffic division. "They're out there living the intersection every day -- God bless them."

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