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It’s Time to Break up Maryland’s State Highway Administration

Maybe the best way to fight the state highway is to split it up.

Mural in the State Highway Administration District 3 Offices in Greenbelt.
Mural in the State Highway Administration District 3 Offices in Greenbelt. Photo by the author.

By Jeff Lemieux
This is a picture I took last year at the Maryland State Highway Administration’s (SHA’s) District 3 offices in Greenbelt. I don’t even remember what the meeting I attended was about. Instead of listening to the speakers, all I could do was stare at that amazing mural across the room. Notice the pleasant streetscape and smiling people. It looks like a great street to shop on, wait for the bus on, play on.

We don’t actually have streets like that in Greenbelt, Md. Outside of the historic core, SHA controls all our important thoroughfares. And they’ve built them like high-speed superhighways, with turn ramps, guard rails, and overhead signs; not like the picture at all. These street-road hybrids – sometimes called “stroads” – are dangerous to cross, stressful to drive on, unpleasant to walk alongside, and terrifying to bike.

Despite the fabulous mural in their conference room, SHA is dominated by highway engineers, not street engineers. Trying to make a neighborhood street function like a highway is dangerous and unproductive. I think Maryland needs to split SHA into two separate organizations: one to build and maintain the true highways, and a completely separate organization, a State Streets Administration, to re-build and maintain our major commercial and residential streets.

Greenbelt Road Between Eleanor Roosevelt High School (on left) and Greenway Center Shopping Area (on right).
Greenbelt Road Between Eleanor Roosevelt High School (on left) and Greenway Center Shopping Area (on right). Image by Google Streetview.

Greenbelt is located in Prince George’s county (population 900,000), adjacent to Washington DC. I don’t know why our state controls virtually all the main streets, but it does. Every attempt to get a crosswalk, a sidepath, a bike lane, a school crossing beacon, a speed limit change, a signal timing change goes through SHA.

Maryland’s SHA has received numerous complaints about dangerous roadways and intersections in the region. In some of those cases, people had been complaining about unsafe conditions for many years.

Up to date statistics on Maryland highway fatalities are not easy to obtain, and I couldn’t find statistics on fatalities on the SHA website. The most recent comprehensive data come from FARS, the NTSB’s Fatal Accident Reporting System. In 2012 and 2013, the most recent years for which FARS data are available, Prince George’s county had the highest number of traffic fatalities in the state, with 87 deaths in each year.

In response to complaints about the situation in Greenbelt, I recently received a letter from the SHA administrator stating that the agency was 100 percent dedicated to safety. However, there were no statistics or initiatives cited to back up that claim. And the evidence against that claim on our streets is compelling. Our main streets are designed for speed, not safety.

Our highway-style street designs cue drivers to speed through complex areas. They induce whiplash driving and sudden lane changes when a driver – expecting highway speeds – has to slow down. Needless to say, bad crashes are common. (Ironically, despite all the highway engineering, traffic volumes are actually down or flat at many local measuring spots.)

Can a state highway administration change? Is it possible to remake highway organizations into agencies capable of designing safe streets in high-density areas? At this point, I’m not sure I even care.

I think the more obvious solution is to just split the agency in two. Rather than trying to change an entrenched institution, let the people where are good at building highways go on building them. But form a new agency to build and maintain our streets the way we need them for safety and economic productivity in more densely populated areas.

Thanks to Strong Towns, here’s how I’ve come to think the highway vs. street distinction:

Highways should connect places, facilitating shipping and travel between them. Good highways should allow efficient, high-speed, uninterrupted transit, with few obstacles or complexities to slow things down or create dangerous conflicts. Think of limited access, interstate highways.

Streets, on the other hand, consist of the public space between buildings and properties within a place. Built correctly, they facilitate neighborhood interactions and commerce. Good streets are intrinsically safe for all users, including children playing, senior citizens on bike rides, the beer delivery truck, and the school bus. Speeds should be slow and complexity is a given. Turning traffic, pedestrians, bikes, should be expected and accommodated.

Greenbelt Road at the Greenbelt National Park Entrance
Greenbelt Road at the Greenbelt National Park Entrance (on the left), office park entrance on the right. Image from Google Streetview.

In my opinion, counties and localities should be able to decide whether they want the current SHA or the new State Streets Administration to maintain their roads.

Of course, there would be conflicts. People always want safe streets in their own neighborhoods, so that things are nice and prosperous where they live, but they want highways through everybody else’s neighborhoods, so they can drive through as fast as possible to get where they want.

Ultimately our elected officials should have responsibility for the street vs. highway designation, and the funding should follow the preferences. If more roadways are designated as streets, then the State Street Administration should get more funding.

Let’s split up the agency so that the people who know how to build highways can concentrate on getting people from place to place, and we can bring in a new set of engineers who understand towns, cities, and the sorts of streets we want to live safely and prosper alongside, just like in SHA’s mural.

Greenbelt Road Approaching Beltway Plaza and Greenbelt Middle School area (on the right).
Greenbelt Road Approaching Beltway Plaza and Greenbelt Middle School area (on the right). Image from Google Streetview.

Cross-posted at Strong Towns.  Jeff Lemieux is an economist in Greenbelt, Md.

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