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When James Ford moved to Deanwood from Dupont Circle in 2004, he went from traversing the well-lit 17th Street NW corridor to driving every day on what he calls one of the most “horrifically unsafe” thoroughfares in the region: the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and its tributaries Maryland State Highway 201 and U.S. 50. Ford was struck by the mangled guardrails and unsafe merges of the long, dimly lit path that connects Charm City to Chocolate City. “It’s very dark. You’d try to make out exits—I thought it was a dangerous situation,” Ford says.
Looking for information about the dim lighting, Ford wrote a letter to the Maryland State Highway Administration (MDSHA). The response he received from an agency employee could have been the beginning of an off-color joke: How many agencies does it take to screw in a light bulb?
It could be as many as four. The lighting on the B-W Parkway (also known as Maryland State Highway 295) from Baltimore until the parkway ends just before Bladensburg is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.The Maryland highways department is in charge of 295 from the end of the parkway until the Eastern Avenue overpass (where it becomes D.C. 295) and also maintains lighting on the small sections of Maryland 201 and U.S. 50 in that area. Any part of 295 from Eastern Avenue to the Wilson Bridge is the D.C. government’s to maintain. And, to complicate matters, underground wiring of light poles is owned and maintained by local utility companies, either Pepco or Baltimore Gas & Electric, based on where the poles stand.
“No one really knows why the arrangement is the way it is,” says Chuck Gischlar, a MDSHA spokesperson. “I couldn’t begin to tell you. I guess back in the day, the power company put some up, supplied electricity, then the park service put up some on the stretch they owned, and so you have a couple of different ownerships.”
As a result, maintaining the lighting often requires the coordination of several local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Depending on who first spots a lighting problem or receives a complaint, it could take several phone calls and anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks before the parties involved are able to take action.
Typical to parkways, the B-W Parkway has few lampposts. But the few lights that dot entries, exits, and interchanges—the most dangerous points of passage—are plagued with old and nonworking lights. A recent survey of the lighting in the area where Maryland 201, U.S. 50, and the Parkway converge revealed 32 dark bulbs.
“It can sometimes be difficult determining where a fault is, and who is responsible for repairing it,” read the letter the MDSHA sent to Ford.
Gischlar says repairs are handled differently each time they come up. “Everything is done on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “We’ll do the physical lights, the utilities do the conduits, in another jurisdiction the park may take the place of us—each one is a different case.”
Not only is it difficult to maintain the lighting under the current system, but it is difficult to upgrade it, as well. Fred Cunningham, the National Park Service manager in charge of the B-W Parkway, says the road was designed as a picturesque way to take a leisurely drive between Baltimore and Washington, not as the major commuter thoroughfare it has become. “You’d take your life in your hands if you tried to stop to try and look at something now,” Cunningham says. “It’s not a scenic route like it was intended to be.”
Cunningham says that, because of the parkway’s repurposing, it is in need of lighting more suited to its use as a heavily traveled road. “The lights are too close to the roadway,” he says. “We have accidents, and people hit the [lights] and knock them down.” According to United States Park Police data, accidents are down on the parkway, but last year saw six fatal accidents and 666 property-damage, or minor, accidents.
Over the next few months, in an attempt to make the stretch a little brighter and make light-pole maintenance a less daunting task, the Maryland highway department is implementing a sort of “let there be light” project to better illuminate small sections of the corridor. It’s part of a $3.5 million plan to improve the darkened state of many of the roads in the region.
At the 295/495 interchange and segments of the B-W Parkway, the department will upgrade and take over some maintenance of the lighting on the strip. A separate project scheduled to begin in the next month or so will overhaul the lighting on the patch of MD 201 and U.S. 50 that Ford says is so poorly lit.
“For a while, there were different owners of different poles—state highways owned some, power companies owned some, local jurisdictions owned some. We are going to do significant work and go ahead and agree to maintain all of the poles, with the exception of [the B-W Parkway],” Gischlar says. The agency plans to replace many of the parkway’s lights along the interchange but still leave most maintenance to the National Park Service.
Gischlar estimates that after the upgrade and maintenance plan are instated, it will take much less effort between various agencies to get things fixed. “It makes it so that it can be managed by one person, instead of three people.”
But while lighting-upgrade projects will make much of the section of road that Ford initially complained about brighter and safer, the Washington side of 295 is not included in the project—the MDSHA’s reach doesn’t extend beyond its own state.
Ford says that the District doesn’t need the charity, though—he says that D.C. has been doing a fine job lighting its highways, including its stretch of 295.
“In fact, they even put up signs to show where Maryland state highway responsibility ends and the [District’s] begins. It struck me as ‘Hey! We’ve got our act together!’”CP