Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Route 197 Corridor

According to Mapquest, the trip from my home in the Grady's Walk subdivision to my office is 4.43 miles (although they do not send me the way I always go), and should take 8 minutes. Almost all of it is spent on Rte 197, North View Drive, and Mitchellville Road -- main roads in our fair town.

There are two things I know for sure from the experience of making that trip a dozen times a week or so -- first, it rarely if ever takes 8 minutes anymore. Second, a day in which I do not witness at least one egregious act of dangerous willful or negligent driving behavior is a rarity.

Rt. 197 -- Collington Road -- is a unique duck. From its southern starting point at Rte. 301, it winds north in two, and then three lanes, passing two major shopping areas, before crossing Rt. 50, and dropping back to two lanes. Through that area, the posted speed limit is 45, which is virtually never enforced, and rarely observed.

At Tasker Middle School, the speed limit drops to 40 mph, and the road merges to a single lane in each direction (although plans are in the works to widen this stretch!?). At the top of the hill, after the Tulip Grove traffic light, the second lane returns, as the road passes the old Rt. 450 and another commercial strip on the left, before reaching the major intersection with the new 450. The speed limit, however, remains 40 mph through here, and indeed, until after passing Rockledge Elementary School, almost on the northern edge of town, when it rises again to 45 -- although one would never know this from observing traffic flow.

Grady's Walk sits just north of this intersection of 197 and 450, on the left as you head north -- with its only 2 entrances on the western side of 197. Between those 2 entrance roads to the subdivision, the road, now moving from north to south, completes a mild ascent, and then begins downward just before the second entrance, as it approaches 450, creating a slight visual impairment in some circumstances.

When 450 was moved to its new location, the traffic pattern for Grady's Walk changed dramatically. We are now much closer to the major intersection -- close enough that in heavier traffic, the southbound back-up from the traffic light routinely passes the southernmost entrance. In a bad circumstance, like the all too frequent accidents along that stretch, the southbound traffic can easily stretch back beyond the northern entrance to Old Church Road. In a serious emergency, as recently occurred, causing a closing of the road, our neighborhood can, in fact, be cut-off.

With the concrete median extending north from the intersection to the southernmost entrance to the community, that entrance becomes the first turning opportunity heading north on 197 after 450. In addition, heading southbound towards the 450 intersection, the approach lane to the ramp to head west on 450 begins immediately south of the southern entrance to the subdivision, at that same intersection where the median ends for northbound travelers on 197.

With the physical description complete, I move now to some of the "normative" driving behaviors exhibited through this area.

Within the expected and legal, with the double stream of northbound traffic -- one continuing north on 197 from south of the intersection on their green light, the other turning northbound from eastbound 450 on their light -- there is an extended period of accelerating traffic northbound which, by itself, severely limits the ability to make a left turn (northbound) out of the southern entrance to Grady's Walk. This window is further reduced by those turning right on red or green from westbound 450, and by the steady stream of southbound traffic, unslowed since the traffic light at Old Church Road, which as a result, varies wildly in speed. It is not uncommon in the morning rush to have to wait upwards of 2 minutes to turn left out of the subdivision at this location, and I am told that at the northern end, the situation is similar, only the wildly divergent speeds are working in BOTH direction of 197 there. In addition, there is the "x-factors" in the southbound lanes of vehicles entering into or exiting from the several driveways of the churches just north of the northern entrance, and the fact that the northern entrance is, in fact, an unregulated 4 way intersection -- with only stop signs on the cross streets (but nothing on 197) controlling traffic flow or speed.

The back-up of southbound traffic to the southern entrance often leaves the "box" blocked -- sometimes in one lane, sometimes in both. However, even when traffic in the left southbound lane stops north of the intersection, and allows entrance and exit to the subdivision, traffic in the right lane often continues -- and is blocked by the courteous drivers in the left lane! Worse, when the right lane's traffic does NOT extend across the intersection, which is the only thing which slows late arriving southbound vehicles, there is still the likelihood of someone flying down the extreme right into the turning ramp to 450! As difficult as getting out of Grady's Walk can be in the morning, getting back in during the evening rush can be downright dangerous!!

And we haven't even factored into this mix yet the very dangerous "sharking" behavior of those wishing to go westbound on 450 coming from the south on 197, when the left turn arrows have already recycled red. Rather than waiting the 60 - 90 seconds in the left turn lanes, as expected by law, these clowns continue north through the intersection, then use the southern Grady's Walk entrance as a u-turn, to go back and get on the southbound ramp to 450. Their selfish, and (so I am told) illegal behavior saves them seconds, but endangers and inconveniences countless others!

While larger solutions exist to this set of dangerous challenges (cheif among them a deliberate traffic quieting scheme through this stretch), it appears that most of these interconnected problems can be solved by a series of what seem to be simple and reasonable fixes. Yet, as noted in the comments to the first post of this blog, this area continues to be a major danger zone.

First -- the speed limits MUST be enforced in this stretch. When traffic can vary from 30 mph - 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, the differential speed, especially for those judging to come into or out of the side streets, represents a significant danger. I don't care about issues of jurisdiction -- get SOMEONE out there regularly, and make these speed demons slow down!

Second -- it would be incredibly helpful to have a coordinated pattern on the southbound lights at Old Church, the new 450 and the old 450, to move traffic through this stretch, and to slow down speeders by training them that they won't get through this stretch any quicker at 50 or 60 than they will at 40.

Third -- it would be incredibly valuable to add traffic lights at BOTH entrances to Grady's Walk. I realize there are complicated formulae for traffic volume that must be met to justify these, and am very skeptical of the fact finding that fails to acknowledge this need. I am very willing to have the northern light be a flashing yellow north and south and flashing red east-west for most of the day, only going operational during morning and evening rush hours (during which, this light, too, would be part of the southbound timing co-ordination).

I also believe that the southern light needs to be perfectly synchronized with the 450 light -- effectly stopping ALL approaching southbound traffic north of the Grady's Walk entrance when the 450 light goes red north and south. Failing the ability to convince and justify here, at the very least we need

Fourth -- clearly painted and marked intersection boxes at both entrances to Grady's Walk, heavily signed for increased fines for blocking the box, and regularly enforced (this enforcement can actually be accomplished with a single officer on foot patrol!) -- to make discourteous drivers more aware that there is a live intersection there!

and Fifth -- greater signage prohibitting the u-turn at the end of the concrete divider at the southern entrance to Grady's Walk, again with increased enforcement.

Despite the obvious logic of and need for these changes, no elected official at any level has yet been convinced to advocate strongly on their, and our, behalf; no DOT plan has yet embraced ANY of this; no amount of agreement from the Bowie Police in theory has led to any increase in patroling and enforcement in fact. And if the plans for expanding the 2 lane stretch of 197 to 4 lanes go through, removing the ONLY place along this stretch at which speeds currently occasionally decrease to close to the speed limit, these problems will only get worse!

How many more deaths and injuries have to occur before this is fixed?!


  1. Can you get an address at MDOT to send letters to? Then a flier to the whole subdivision asking them to write asking for at least a "do not block the box" sign. You and I can't be the only two with complaints/opinions.

    Maybe a roller and can of white paint? We'll paint a stop line across 197 ourselves.

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