THE BEST THING THAT CAN be said about the stretch of U.S. 40 that runs through Howard County? It's a legitimate piece of Americana.
Like the age rings on an old oak, the sporadic, sometimes tasteless, development that has occurred along it marks a half-century of history. Yet even when indoor shopping malls came into vogue in the '70s and power centers this decade, with their orderliness and aesthetic appeal, the U.S. 40 corridor remained vibrant in spite of its sprawling tackiness.
For those who live in communities along its side streets, there is much criticism about the congestion and general ugliness. Ironically, some neighbors decry the very thing that could save the road -- its continued commercial appeal to retailers and developers. But those two groups may be the only ones who can supply the resources necessary to spruce up the corridor. Government is in no position to provide more than ideas and encouragement.
Already, there are changes afoot, or at least on the drawing board. A dramatic redesign of the intersection at Rogers Avenue and U.S. 40 will be built by developers of a new Wal-Mart. That would address one of the corridor's worst ills, but more can be done.
Telephone polls could be relocated to make them less of an eyesore. The wires could even go underground. Because the various restaurants, gas stations and car dealerships were sited haphazardly over decades, many are isolated from each another. The effect is to add to the highway's congestion, with motorists forced into mindboggling contortions as they cross the busy street, make U-turns and double back, just to arrive at the center next to the one they just left. Connecting the centers' parking lots would keep shoppers off the road and bring greater continuity to the strip.
On the page opposite a few days ago, columnist Neal R. Pierce, who studies urban issues, decried the proliferation of the "big box" warehouse stores and suggested they were beginning to cannibalize one another. While there's no denying the popularity of the "power center" experience, the trend has far to travel before it can boast the longevity of strips such as U.S. 40. The evolution of this highway will continue, but its betterment lies largely with those who have a financial stake in any improvement.