Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Emerson February 2016 Town Hall Notes

Howard County's Chief of the Traffic Engineering Division was the special guest at Emerson's February 2016 Town Hall on February 22, 2016, attended by approximately 30 residents.

This division, within the Department of Public Works, is responsible for engineering traffic solutions (to include signals and traffic calming) as well as for operational functions such as snow removal on public streets.

 The topics covered that evening:
  • Parking problems within Emerson
  • Snow removal
  • Traffic and speeding issues

The highlights were:
  • Where there is choice offered by the Fire Marshal, Emerson intends to ask each street/neighborhood to decide which side of the street should have restricted parking, to allow emergency vehicles room to get through. Howard County will then mark those streets. 
  • The January 22-23 snow storm was a record-setting snowfall combined with high winds. It took much longer to clear because: 
    • the winds erased a lot of the snow-clearing work; 
    • the huge amount of snow meant smaller equipment such as pickups with blades could not be used; and 
    • there was no place to put the snow so it had to be hauled out. 
  • There are two areas with speeding problems
    • Howard County said they would put a portable sign that measures speed in one location.
    • Non-emergency number can be called for enforcement.
    • If a report is submitted, they can do a speed study, and if it meets the criteria, affected residents can vote on engineering solutions such as traffic humps.
    • Even if an area doesn't initially meet the criteria, it may later as traffic grows.

Next Meetings:

  1. Parking Problems
    1. Emerson engaged the Howard County Fire Marshal last year to address problems with parked cars blocking access to streets, creating a safety hazard if emergency vehicles are not able to get through
    2. Fire Marshal produced a report late last year recommending that parking be restricted on one side of certain streets
      1. Effort has stalled since then: Traffic Engineering never saw the report, and both they and the Fire Marshal want the community to decide which side of the street should have restricted parking
        1. Traffic Engineering says that community engagement in the process is the key, so people have opportunity for input
          1. Do not want to surprise people when the signs go up
        2. A copy of the map was provided to Traffic Engineering that evening, but they are awaiting the Emerson Community's response
      2. Traffic Engineering Division will mark those streets once this is decided
        1. Will install signs; no longer paint curbs because that requires ongoing maintenance
    3. Emerson's Board believes the Fire Marshal is the most objective party to make the decision on which side of the streets to mark for no parking. Emerson HOA Board has no power to decide where to place no parking signs.
      1. Of Emerson's 20 neighborhoods, can perhaps delegate the decision-making process to the 10 sub-HOAs for the townhomes, but Emerson HOA will probably need to manage the process for the rest of the community
      2. Emerson will provide the Fire Marshal's professional recommendation to the affected streets, and any relevant information about the specific decisions needed
      3. In discussions during the Town Hall, it became clear that there are no obvious universal criteria for picking a side of the street
        1. For example, on streets where one side is open and the other has a sidewalk, some residents saw advantages to either of the options
        2. Possible considerations include the impact on snow removal, access to the sidewalk, location of fire hydrants, the amount of parking affected, whether a house needs room for a special needs bus to stop, etc.
          1. Resident points out that in Wisconsin, cars park on odd or even side corresponding to the day of the month during snow events
        3. Q: Can a street elect not to accept the Fire Marshal's recommendation?
          1. No. We will not prioritize convenience over safety of lives and property.
          2. Fire Marshal has the authority to mandate compliance
          3. One concern is that to reach third story ladder trucks need to set up outriggers for stability 17 feet wide, and trucks are wide (10.5 feet)
          4. Resident points out that if fire trucks are impeded during an emergency they will push cars out of the way regardless of damage
          5. During the snow storm, the County sent plows ahead of the emergency vehicles
    4. Chief of Traffic Engineering was asked why County Code allows narrow streets to be built
      1. Answer is that the Fire Marshal does review the plans, but the design philosophy has changed over the years
      2. In previous years streets were designed to be wide, but had problems with speeding in residential neighborhoods
        1. By narrowing the streets, traffic was encouraged to slow down beginning in the late 1980s
          1. Also designed streets with curves versus straightaways for the same reason
        2. Also had other benefits such as reducing the amount of runoff from the streets
    5. Miscellaneous Parking Questions
      1. Q: In a cul-de-sac, should cars park parallel to the curb, or with the front of the car to the curb?
        1. Parallel to the curb. Cul-de-sacs are large to allow large vehicles such as trash trucks or school buses to turn around.
        2. When snowing, please park your car in the driveway to let the plows clear the streets
      2. Q: What about parking on islands?
        1. County Code does not permit parking on islands, can be ticketed, though police need to be called
        2. Typically receive a warning first
        3. Calls can be anonymous
      3. Q: Can cars be ticketed that haven't moved in months?
        1. If they are parked legally, tags are current, and they are not causing problems, no
  2. Snow Removal
    1. This was a historic and atypical storm with a record-breaking 30 inches of snow, and it took much longer to clear than usual
      1. Plow drivers were working for 3 days without sleep, and Traffic Engineering supervisor were out there all weekend
      2. In a typical storm (e.g., 6 inches) typically get roads cleared in 16 hours
        1. This storm had high winds causing the snow to pile up as if they hadn't cleared it at all
          1. Had to spend a lot of time redoing the major streets
        2. Priority was to keep roads open for fire and rescue calls, can assign a plow to go with the emergency vehicle
        3. Normally start with the big roads, then secondary, then residential in that order
      3. This storm (Friday/Saturday) people were getting antsy by Monday or Tuesday
        1. Some streets were already open, so they didn't want to come back and push the snow again, block driveways. Were checking just that the street was passable.
        2. A lot of the County's small pickup trucks with snow blades couldn't be used in this storm -- simply too much snow for them to work
        3. Needed to use large equipment
          1. But hard to push this much snow
          2. Also much wider, often only able to make one pass
            1. With pickups, they usually clear 16-18 feet allowing two cars to pass each other (carefully)
          3. Also, County has 4000 miles of roads, most County streets are small streets
            1. Not enough room for them to put the snow anywhere, only way to do it is to haul the snow out
          4. Howard County spent $1.5M to clear this storm, budget for the entire season was only $1.4M
        4. In a normal storm, they would clear snow curb to curb
          1. But because of the length of this storm and the huge amount of snow, they had no place to put the snow
          2. Also, if they pushed the snow into the driveways everyone would complain vociferously
          3. Traffic Engineering was still sending out supervisors a week later, he had them take pictures of the situation to document
          4. Problem also made worse by cars parked on random sides of the street, plus homeowners burying things when digging themselves out
      4. Q&A
        1. Q: Many of Emerson's streets are cul-de-sacs off of another road, seems like as first plow went down it blocked the streets?
          1. Yes, this can happen in the initial pass. Even if they stop at every street they still would have needed some place to put the snow.
        2. Q: Why was street only cleared 1 time? Son's bus had to back out 5 houses.
          1. Needs to be reported (they did not)
          2. Also, County knew there was a significant warm spell forecast, challenge was that if they came through again they would block all the cleared driveways and upset people that way
  3. Traffic and Speeding Issues
    1. There was extended discussion about speeding issues in two separate areas
      1. In one area, the major issue is parents speeding as they go to pick up their kids at the school
      2. In the other, the major issue is people using it as a shortcut from Gorman to Stephens Road to avoid congestion
        1. A child and dog have been hit on this road in the past few years
    2. County can take three types of action:
      1. Engineering
      2. Enforcement
      3. Education
    3. There is a process for addressing these issues, need to be reported to Traffic Engineering office
      1. Traffic Engineering must use federal standards for their criteria for traffic calming
        1. Usually must have 1200 vehicles per day, 1200 feet long, and residential streets with frontage
        2. Note that even if a street doesn't initially meet the criteria, the studies can be repeated
          1. Murray Hill and Vollmerhausen intersection initially did not meet criteria for a stop sign, but as traffic increased over 7 years it eventually did
      2. General sequence:
        1. Report the issue (there are forms that can be used)
        2. They will conduct a speed study
        3. If street meets minimum criteria, will respond to the homeowner or HOA that reported it
        4. Then residents must vote (people who live on the street have a vote, as well as those who would have no other way out without driving over the traffic humps)
      3. Other possible actions:
        1. Targeted enforcement (e.g., have police presence to check that people are stopping at stop signs, but not to direct traffic)
          1. Especially for the first location, which may not be long enough for a traffic hump
          2. Make a phone call to the non-emergency number
        2. Education: Can install one of the 4 portable speed signs with radars that tell drivers their speed, which are moved around the County
          1. Suggests this is the first step in the second of these cases
        3. Engineering:
          1. Narrower streets make people drive slower
    4. Q&A
      1. Q: Can streets get rumble strips?
      2. Q: Can we get traffic cameras?
        1. Need legislation, currently restricted to school zones only
      3. Q: Can stop sign be installed in the second location?
      4. Q: Children at Play signs?
        1. County doesn't allow on public roadway, as it's not safe to play in street and don't want confusion on that message
        2. Emerson says issue is how to prevent kids from getting hit
        3. But drivers are already ignoring the speed limit signs, so County suggests that education and enforcement are needed
        4. Current County policy is to encourage playgrounds
      5. Q: Can anything be done to protect bicyclists on roads?
        1. State law says cyclists must be given 3 feet of room
        2. Someone suggests that this is not commonly known
      6. Q: Stephens Road bridge project?
        1. Project is underway, still acquiring right-of-way.
      7. Q: Can anything be done to alleviate noise from buses and increased traffic on Stephens Road?
        1. County doesn't install noise walls along County roadways, only State highways like I-95, MD-216
        2. There is a 65 dB noise contour line; someone asks about noise walls on I-95 where trees have been removed by construction
          1. There is a process: County still funds a portion of the project even on State roads, so can approach County Transportation and Special Projects Division
          2. Only install walls if road was expanded
        3. County is looking at electric buses using contactless charging pad, to replace the diesel buses, which would reduce noise

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