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Traffic solution gets a green light

July 25, 1997

A little late in coming but overwhelmingly welcome nonetheless, the City of Hagerstown announced this week that in August the first of some major, citywide traffic-signal upgrades will begin.

Gone by November, among others, will be those red, yellow and green dinosaurs on Wilson Boulevard - the lights I've loved to hate the most over the years. And by 1999, 60 or so city's other traffic signals will be replaced as well.

Ah, just think of the traffic-light indignities we've endured over the years. Dual Highway, Pennsylvania Avenue in the North End, Wilson Boulevard in the South End - all those seemingly steam-powered traffic lights which, through cutting edge 19th century technology, are able to sense when a car is coming and immediately turn red.

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Won't we miss them? The theory behind traffic signals is that they are supposed to make traffic move smoother. But for years ours have behaved like a jokester throwing office furniture off the back of a delivery truck, cramming what should have been a 10 minute drive into a half-hour.

I can't count the number of times I've ridden into town on my bicycle and watched the reactions, first amazement and then annoyance, of drivers who can't outrun a human-powered machine because they must stop for a light every tenth of a mile.

The problem is not that there is an over-abundance of cars in Hagerstown. It only seems that way because the signals, signs and traffic patterns take what cars there are and tie them in knots.

The lights on the main drags through town are well-synchronized (Although there's a school of urban-planning thought that, in the business district at least, the signals should be staggered because you want people to stop and have a chance to glance around at the stores rather than breeze through without looking left or right) but any other city route can take a lifetime.

I've talked to several people who refuse to drive into downtown Hagerstown because it is simply too tedious, too frustrating.

Sitting in a line of 20 cars on Potomac waiting on the signal to change - when the light is wasting its green on an empty Wilson Boulevard - may only cost a couple of minutes in practical terms, but it leaves a psychological distaste that turns one off to city visits.

For this reason, downtown shopkeepers stand to benefit from traffic-pattern reform - reform which not only should include new lights, but new and syncronized traffic flows as well.

It's especially crucial here, with interstate highways to our south and west. It is easy enough for all those North End residents who work in the prisons to hop 81 and 70 on the way to Sharpsburg, particularly if they know a drive through town, although shorter, will be a painful ordeal.

Downtown shops thrive on traffic, on being seen. Urban planners say the most successful downtowns have the bedrooms on one of town, the industries on the other and one main road right through town connecting the two.

With the interstates, we don't have the luxury of a captive traffic flow so we need to make city driving as easy and low-hassle as possible.

Driver psychology is a funny and delicate thing. If a person is held up for a minute and a half by a "No turn on red" sign when there is no traffic coming in the opposite direction he will get disgusted and not want to return.

City Council Member Bill Breichner correctly called for a study of these "No turn" signs, saying some might not be necessary. I'll go out on a limb even more by suggesting that well over half of the no turn on red signs in Hagerstown are a complete waste of tin.

The county would do well to join with the city to resolve a number of traffic issues countywide in the interests of safety, downtown viability, expediency and convenience.

Travel in the city and throughout Washington County should be easy, not the frustrating chore it is now.

The city's decision to replace its antiquated signals well worth the expense, and a large, significant step toward washing away decades of driver frustration.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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