What to do about Route 32? Money is a problem, but it's too important a project to abandon.

November 23, 1995

LET'S SAY that your furnace breaks down in the dead of winter, and you don't have the money to repair it. You could decide you'll just have to freeze. Most people, however, consider heat a necessity and would find some way to get that furnace fixed. Maybe they would eat stew instead of steak for awhile. Maybe they would take a weekend job. The point is that if an expense is important enough, you do what it takes to pay for it.

In western Anne Arundel County, the traffic-glutted, 1.5-mile stretch of Maryland Route 32 that runs past the National Security Agency needs fixing. Traffic jams occur daily, and will get worse as the population in Anne Arundel's most potent growth area increases. State Highway Administration officials say they don't

have the money -- a formidable $70 million -- to upgrade the road.

They aren't kidding. Funding for major road projects is dropping drastically -- from $295 million this year to an anticipated $7 million by 2000. The SHA's strategy involves spreading money among many projects, looking at stopgap measures and avoiding expensive jobs.

While this approach generally makes sense, it does not solve the problem of what to do about road congestion that cannot be solved with interim changes and are too important in terms of safety and traffic flow to abandon. Route 32 is an important road, a major freeway from Annapolis to Columbia. The 1.5-mile section in dispute serves NSA, one of Maryland's largest employers, and handles a huge volume of commuter traffic in a targeted growth area. Moreover, the state is investing $200 million to improve the rest of the 21.8-mile road. It's foolish not to do the job properly.

It's easy to declare that projects like the Route 32 completion simply can't be done. The better answer involves isolating those projects that should be done regardless of cost, then looking for money through budget cuts or, in this case, by pressing for a contribution from the federal government; after all, this upgrade costs so much partly because NSA's fiber optic system would have to be dug up and reburied. And there's always the option of raising the gas tax to increase revenue. People won't enjoy paying more for roads, but it's a fairly safe bet they would prefer that to interminable delays and dangerous intersections.

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