Stepping back from Main St.

The Baltimore Sun

PRESTON --Twenty years ago, when Mimi and Bill Willis were still considered newcomers in this Eastern Shore village, they whiled away late-summer evenings on the front porch - chatting, rocking, listening to warm-weather sounds and counting the reasons they'd left the congestion of suburban Washington.

... Not anymore.

Like their neighbors who live along Main Street, they have long since retreated indoors to block out the din of cars and trucks rumbling through - 11,149 vehicles a day, by the State Highway Administration's count. That's a thousand more cars every day than five years ago and about 5,000 more than in 1990.

"We can't sit out on the porch," said Mimi Willis, who works as Preston's town manager in a converted brick bank building a block from her house. "You just can't hear well enough to carry on a conversation."

Preston's Main Street is a milelong stretch of Route 331 that runs through town. The state road has always had a fair amount of traffic, but the volume has grown as more people have moved to the Eastern Shore and more still come to visit.

In Caroline County alone, the population has grown by nearly 10 percent since 2000. Folks are now commuting from this area to jobs across the Bay Bridge, and some come through Preston to get to U.S. 50. In summer, motorists bound for the beach make traffic even worse.

That means Preston's approximately 700 residents have to plot the best time for a grocery run to Federalsburg or appointments with the doctor or dentist in Easton.

"You might not expect it in a small town, but we have to adjust schedules to deal with the traffic," said Donna Brock, mother of a 10-year-old Preston Elementary student.

Part of the problem, says Salisbury University economist Memo F. Diriker, is that the Eastern Shore is growing at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the state, but roads and other infrastructure haven't kept pace.

"The road through Preston is an artery, a travel artery for the whole region," Diriker said. "It's an artery that gets clogged frequently."

Even though Preston Elementary is an easy walk from most homes, cautious parents say they wouldn't dream of letting children walk alone on the sidewalks, which seem perilously close to traffic and drivers who seem disinclined to obey the speed limit.

Town officials say the constant pounding of everything from cars to dump trucks (many headed to or from a Dorchester County landfill) and 18-wheelers that service industrial parks in Federalsburg wreaks havoc on Preston's main water line, built under the street during the Depression.

Residents still like to brag that Preston is "The Biggest Little Town in the USA," the slogan featured on welcome signs at either end of the old railroad town. Now the signs also carry a warning: "Speeders and Aggressive Drivers Beware." A few yards have handmade signs urging drivers to "Slow Down."

A couple of weeks ago, school crossing guard Reggie Maguire felt compelled to ask the three-member Town Commission for help. Maguire, who took the part-time slot when he retired from the State Highway Administration, was fed up.

"I've lived here all my life, and I've seen the town grow, but the traffic is growing a lot more than the town," he said.

Maguire said he's learned to take the dirty looks, muttered curses, even the occasional obscene gesture from frustrated drivers. He knows he's stacking up traffic a mile in either direction every time he walks into the street to let buses, parents or children cross in front of the school.

"The worst is when [drivers] just won't stop when I step into the crosswalk," said Maguire, who's gotten backup from Preston's two-man police force, the state police and Caroline County sheriff's deputies since complaining publicly.

Joyce Schiver, principal of the blue-ribbon elementary school, says traffic seems to have outpaced enrollment, which has increased from 390 pupils to 419 in the past four years. Preston added a 42-unit subdivision last year, but there's far more growth in other Shore towns.

"The traffic has increased exponentially over the five years I've been here, but I don't believe it's Preston people," Schiver said.

The solution, many agree, would be a bypass, but town officials figure their chances are "slim to none" of getting a costly highway.

Two years ago, J. Ellery Adams, president of the Town Commission, put together a 40-page spiral book he calls the "Bypass Book," with photographs and letters from citizens who hope to persuade state and county officials to back a new road.

The state contends that Main Street is adequate to handle projected traffic increases until 2030, Ellery said. With town residents and property owners outside town divided over the issue, county officials have been reluctant to press for a bypass.

"The way things used to be, for decades, we only needed one police officer," Adams said. "Now, we need somebody just to monitor the traffic. There's phenomenal growth all around us, and that's only going to continue. It can't be the way it was ever again."

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