Town needs a new way to finance road bypass


November 19, 1995|By Brian Sullam

HAMPSTEAD DESperately needs a bypass.

There is no argument that diverting the heavy flow of traffic from the center of this pleasant northeast Carroll town would substantially improve the quality of life for its 3,300 residents. The disagreement is how to pay for the road.

Since Hanover Pike, also known as Route 30, is a state road, Carroll residents have always assumed that the State Highway Administration would pay for the planning, design and construction of the 5.8-mile bypass.

As currently planned, the road would branch from Route 30, swing out to the west away from the populated areas and rejoin Route 30 north of the village of Greenmount. Unfortunately, such a road is very low on the SHA's list of priorities.

Even though Hampstead has needed relief for years from the continuous stream of heavy trucks that barrel through town and the twice-daily parade of Pennsylvania commuters traveling to their jobs in metropolitan Baltimore, Maryland Transportation Secretary David Winstead did not convey a sense of urgency when he visited Hampstead earlier this month and spoke with several dozen town leaders.

Even though Mr. Winstead saw for himself how the unrelenting flow of heavy trucks and cars transformed Hampstead's

once-bucolic Main Street into a noisy, smelly thoroughfare, the best he could offer was a promise to assist efforts to raise private funds to finance the bypass construction.

Fresh from its experience in Frederick County, where the SHA worked with local officials and businesses to raise money to build a bypass around the town of Woodsboro, the department is more than happy to suggest a mix of private and public financing as a means for building bypasses around other hard-pressed towns.

As a concept, the idea is fine, particularly if the roads don't cost much. Woodsboro's bypass is projected to cost a rather modest $5 million. Before county officials start chasing this will-o'-the-wisp, however, they ought to take a careful look at the magnitude of this project.

The proposed bypass is estimated to cost $35 million. This particular public-private partnership faces an insurmountable financial hurdle.

Financial roadblocks

As much as Hampstead's businesses and residents would welcome a bypass, few are likely to donate or even invest sums large enough to undertake this road-building project.

Looking for county financing is not promising. Carroll's county government will have trouble meeting the county's current infrastructure needs, let alone shouldering a project it assumed was in the state's baliwick.

Hampstead town government doesn't have the resources either. Financing the construction of a major bypass would overwhelm the town's small tax base. State financing is the only realistic method to pay for the bypass. The problem is that under the SHA's current criteria, this particular bypass doesn't qualify for immediate consideration.

State highway administrators want to spend on road projects that alleviate significant bottlenecks. That is the reason why building a bypass around the Eastern Shore town of Salisbury is a priority and building one around Hampstead is not.

Officials also want to conserve the shrinking amount of road-building money for improvements to existing roads in heavily populated and congested areas around Baltimore and Washington.

Bottom of the barrel

Since much of the traffic passing through Hampstead originates on the Pennsylvania side of the state line and Carroll is not a heavily populated county, state highway officials tend to place the county's highway projects toward the bottom of its list of priorities.

The task facing Hampstead officials and Carroll's legislative delegation is to convince highway administrators that preserving small towns such as Hampstead is as important as relieving congestion and correcting dangerous roads and intersections.

That will be no easy task. The SHA's primary task is constructing roads, not preserving communities. If a new road happens to lessen the disruptive effects of traffic and, in turn, improve the civic life of a community, it is an unintended, if welcome, side effect.

Perhaps the time has come to link road building to community preservation, particularly in rapidly growing counties such as Carroll. Until recently the highway that passed through Hampstead and Manchester was lightly traveled, but Route 30 is no longer a country road. The heavy volume of traffic has made it a virtual interstate highway. In fact, under the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, better known as "ice tea," improving quality of life was added to the goals of road engineers. It's the reason more attention has been paid to highway landscaping, noise barriers and the like.

After all, what good is having smooth flowing roads if they lead to communities that are no longer pleasant places to dwell?

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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