After 20 years of requests and appeals, the state began construction yesterday on improvements to a stretch of Route 32 outside the National Security Agency that will transform the road from a highway with traffic lights to a freeway.
The $34 million project, which involves less than a half-mile of roadway, is expected to be completed by 2003.
For two decades, agency officials have complained about the daily backups along the road as more than 20,000 employees headed to and from work.
Those complaints went largely unheeded until recent years, when state officials noticed that Route 32 had become one of the most prominent connectors linking Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and carrying commuters to and from Washington. More than 40,000 people traverse the section of road near the NSA daily.
Agency officials said yesterday that the growing risk of terrorist attacks on government facilities - especially one with the duties of NSA - has made the road improvements a necessity.
When completed, the freeway will have three exits where there are now traffic lights; one of those exits will likely become an "employees only" off-ramp. The first interchange, with an exit to Samford Road, is scheduled to be completed by August 2001.
The improvements have been a long time coming. Despite NSA's multibillion-dollar budget and influence in Washington, it needed the help of state and Anne Arundel County government officials to make the project a priority.
"I would suspect that we weren't always the easiest big employer for the state and county to work with, especially given the secret nature of our work here," agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden said. "There was a time when a county official couldn't even get a traffic count from us because we didn't want to reveal our employee numbers. The future for us is about partnerships now."
The road project hit hurdles from its inception in the late 1970s. Federal officials argued that improvements to a state road were the state's responsibility. State highway administrators responded that the road, then operated almost solely for the employees of a federal agency, was the federal government's problem. Anne Arundel County, meanwhile, was struggling to find funding for other projects and was not ready to declare the improvements a priority.
Only recently, when Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, and other congressional leaders joined agency officials and Anne Arundel Executive Janet S. Owens in support of the project did the funding come together.
Most of the money will come from the federal government. Congress has appropriated several million "special project" dollars, and the security agency and a military road improvement fund will add several million more. The state will match 20 percent of the federal government's contribution.
Yesterday, Mikulski said she would never forget her first briefing in 1986 with then-agency Director Lt. Gen. William E. Odom.
"I was all set to talk about how we were going to end Communism and handle rogue states," she said. "I went in there and Odom said, `Barbara, I need your help. America needs your help.'
"I said, `I am ready to do my duty, what do you need?' He said, `Can you please get that damn Route 32 problem fixed?' "