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Town tires to address traffic in the square

Chris Patterson

Traffic is one of the biggest problems the Town of Emmitsburg has been facing recently. Now, with the help of the State Highway Administration, town officials have hope problems will improve.

Neil Parrott, traffic engineer for the State Highway Administration, and fellow engineer John Concannon have been working with Emmitsburg Mayor Jim Hoover to improve what is for some an intolerable situation.

Parrott said Hoover contacted the state in October 2003 to work on the key traffic nightmare in town --the intersection of North and South Seton avenues with Md. Route 140, also known as East and West Main Street.

At the town's only major intersection, traffic backs up severely in the afternoon as homeward-bound drivers head north on South Seton to the stoplight.

Rapid growth to the north and west of Emmitsburg has led to heavy traffic lines waiting in the morning and the afternoon, though Parrott said the afternoons are the worst.

Town Commissioner Bill O'Neil said the back-ups in the afternoon are the most difficult, often stretching from the stoplight to the National Fire Academy.

Resident Amy Phillips moved to West Main Street in May 2000. At the time, she said, she could get through the red light at the intersection on the first try. Now it can take up to four light changes or more, as it did on one recent trip to the grocery store.

Now Phillips takes "short cuts" through parking lots or whatever routes she can to avoid the backup, she said. And she is not alone. She refers to the alley behind her house as the "Pennsylvania Turnpike" because of all the speeding cars that use that route to avoid the backup.

"It's nonstop traffic. They speed down the alley [to take a short cut to avoid the light]. They gun their motors and play loud music. I ask them to turn it down and they shout obscenities," she said.

To mitigate the problems, State Highway is suggesting a few changes, at no cost to the town.

Parrott said the administration's first suggestion to improve the intersection is to change the timing of the light so northbound traffic goes first and can turn left easily. Southbound traffic would get the green light next.

Though the total time for the stoplight to run through a rotation will be longer, the staggered timing will mean many more cars get through the intersection, which will help with the traffic backup, Parrott said.

Another enhancement to the intersection will be to install "presence detectors" at the stop bar for the light.

Current detectors are about 500 feet back from the stoplight that let the system know when cars are sitting back that far on the road.

Adding the presence detectors will let the system know a car is waiting there to turn. That will also help to keep the light green a little longer to let those cars through. Parrott said the highway administration is planning to complete both enhancements by spring 2005.

Hoover said he hopes the two enhancements will fix the problem. If not, he's going to again propose something he suggested when he was on the town's streets committee in 1997. At that time the committee suggested removing the few parking spaces located at the intersection and changing that space into left-turn lanes. The board of commissioners did not approve the idea, but Hoover still thinks it may be needed. Of course, he'll have to get it past the current board of commissioners that voted against the idea when Concannon and Parrott visited a June 7 town meeting.

Hoover and Parrott said the changes proposed for the spring will be paid for by the state. If turn lanes are installed in the future, it would be a shared expense between the state and the town.

Parrott said the highway administration has also received a letter from town resident Catherine Forrence, president of Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg, addressing concerns about speeding and the loud and intense vibrations caused by large trucks through town.

Forrence asked for the speed limit on Route 140 to be dropped to 25 mph at Tract Road and for "traffic calming" measures, such as the addition of rumble strips or more signs to let drivers know they need to slow down as they enter town.

Parrot said the highway administration likes to set "realistic" speed limits and so won't likely change the limit there. The speed limit through town is actually lower than the Maryland statute declares for a road such as Route 140, 30 mph, he said.

Parrott acknowledged that speeding is a problem on the road. In the highway administration's analysis, it was determined most drivers drive about 53 mph at Tract Road. State officials have not yet determined a complete response to the issues Forrence raised, but are working on it, he said.

The agency is considering setting up speed trailers on Emmitsburg roads to show drivers how fast they are going, in an effort to slow them down.

As for truck noise, the agency has done one thing already that may help, Parrott said. Signs have been installed at both ends of town on Route 140 that prohibit the use of "modified exhaust systems" in the town. Those systems are the ones that create the loud breaking sound that many people find jarring and excessively loud.

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