Faced with the specter of choked traffic and the reality of declining state funding for highways, Howard County expects to pay at least $369 million to improve state and county roads and interchanges over the next 17 years.
The improvements will only keep pace with the increase in traffic, Public Works Director James M. Irvin said.
The spending estimate amounts to $21.7 million annually -- nearly triple the roughly $7.5 million that Howard has spent annually for road construction in recent years.
The county increased spending on roads and bridges to $18 million in the current fiscal year, and for the first time earmarked part of it -- $12 million -- to get a head start on state highway projects for which other funding is not yet available.
Howard County has "no choice" but to move ahead with a more costly road construction program, Mr. Irvin said. "The problems are out there, but right now the situation is not out of control. The county has to develop an aggressive program to maintain the traffic flow. We have four or five years before the levels of service really start breaking down.
"Even if we build all the road improvements, we basically will be holding our own," he said.
The county's cost projections include $80 million for improving local roads and $289 for state highway projects, and assume that the State Highway Administration will match the county's contribution to state highway improvements. However, Mr. Irvin said that may be optimistic during a period of state budget-cutting.
State Highway Administrator Hal Kassoff agreed, saying that he did not know if the state would continue to match the county's contributions.
But he said that the county's support of state highway projects "will put them in good position to attract future state and federal funding that will have a much greater impact."
"What Howard County is doing makes good sense in good times, not only in troubled times," he said.
Mr. Irvin said "the wave of the future is in more diverse revenue sources for state road projects" in local jurisdictions.
"In the past, typically it involved just state and federal monies, but now we are looking at funding also coming from private sources and even tolls on certain projects."
He said that the county likely will use its bonds to finance $16.7 million of the annual cost of road projects and a proposed excise tax on new development to raise the rest. The tax has been proposed by a group of citizens and developers who are drafting ordinance to ensure that new development is not allowed unless there are adequate roads and schools. County Executive Charles I. Ecker has requested state legislative authority to impose such a tax locally.
The alternative to financing the road improvements is "failing" roads, roads where a motorist must sit through two to three red traffic lights before moving, Mr. Irvin said.
Today such backups occur at rush hour at U.S. 29 and Route 103, where an interchange is being built, he said.
"We have a few failing intersections, but not many," said Carl Balser, the county's chief of transportation planning. "However, a number of the intersections are approaching capacity, and within the next five years, these sections of road will go from what is an acceptable level of delay to an unacceptable level."
He cited Cedar Lane at Route 32; U.S. 29 at Johns Hopkins Road; Route 175 at Route 108, at Snowden River Parkway, at U.S. 1 and at Dobbin Road; and Route 32 at Route 108. He blamed Howard County's traffic problems on its "central location in the Baltimore-Washington region."
"We have to accommodate through traffic in all directions, and up to two-thirds of the traffic on some of our major roads is pass through."
By comparison, he said that the 2,500 new houses each year that the county is projecting would have a relatively small impact on traffic flow.
However, "a major segment" of the traffic that will travel on Route 32 and Route 100, major state construction projects, will originate in Howard County, Mr. Kassoff said.
Howard County is one of a few local jurisdictions that have allocated local money for state highway improvements that previously were covered exclusively by state funds. Montgomery and Prince George's counties also have done so; Anne Arundel County has authorization for such funding but has not allocated the money to date.
The issue of financing state road projects came up earlier last week when the County Council authorized Mr. Irvin to use county money to build a bridge on the east side of U.S. 29 near the Route 100-Route 103 interchange. The bridge eventually will connect with a proposed new Long Gate Parkway that would intersect Montgomery Road east of the Armory.
It was the fourth state highway project the county has agreed to fund this year. As a result, the county has already committed the $12 million it budgeted with no guarantees of receiving any reimbursement.
"We will be trying to leverage the county funds to obtain more state and federal money to meet these critical needs," Mr. Irvin said.