A panel of experts considering the effect of widening Route 32 through western Howard County had its first and only public meeting last night.
Neil J. Pederson, deputy administrator of the State Highway Administration, told the seven-member panel that two work sessions set for Dec. 12 and Jan. 16 will be closed to the public.
Pederson's announcement was protested by Dan Pontious, director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership, an umbrella group of five civic and environmental organizations.
West Friendship residents opposed to the project say widening Route 32 between Interstate 70 and Clarksville would attract more traffic and bring more development, making an already congested road worse.
Pederson and several other panel members said that closed sessions will allow freer discussions.
"There's not enough chance for interplay - too much posturing and speaking to the public rather than to each other," agreed Douglas R. Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute, a Montgomery County consulting firm.
Richard Hull, a Carroll County developer, also said he would feel more able to speak his mind in closed sessions. "I wouldn't like to read about it in the papers the next day," he said.
The panel is made up of real estate experts, consultants and planners.
A report on the group's findings will be issued in February, he said.
Three courses of action are under discussion - doing nothing, widening the road to a four-lane freeway or adding interchanges to the two-lane highway - but Pederson said the panel is not being asked to decide among those choices. The state is not committed to any of those options, he said.
"We're trying to predict what changes in land use we could expect" under each of the three options, he said.
The panel was told that state planners expect the four counties nearest the Route 32 corridor - Howard, Carroll, Montgomery and Frederick - to see a population expansion of 184,000 people during the next 20 years.
Heather Murphy, State Highway Administration project manager, has said that panels of experts have been used twice before - for projects in Southern Maryland and Eastern Baltimore County.
The Route 32 panel is supposed to help state officials decide whether widening the roadway would improve the traffic situation or whether it would attract more development - as opponents claim - and make traffic worse in the long run.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey and Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. favor widening the highway, saying they feel the two-lane road poses a safety threat as congestion worsens.
Rutter has said he fears that if nothing is done, motorists will begin filtering onto residential streets, seeking ways to avoid gridlock on Route 32. Widening the road won't change the county's basic strategy for preserving the rural western part of the county, he said last night.
But opponents don't trust the panel, said Deborah Izzi, president of the Citizens Alliance for Rural Preservation.
"I want to know what they're up to. I think it's definitely a stacked deck," she said. "The community doesn't even have any say."
Izzi said she feels some panel members who are involved in real estate could have a vested interest in the road's expansion. To address that concern, state highway officials asked panel members to state any conflict of interest they might have and disclose any set positions they have taken on the project. None admitted to a direct conflict.
The County Council, which approved a new 20-year General Plan this month, added wording to the document making clear that the highway should be widened only as a last resort, after other safety measures have been exhausted.
The county is committed to preventing the extension of public water and sewerage into the western county as a way of helping to preserve the rural nature of the area. Izzi and her group argue that widening Route 32 will only make such preservation tougher.
Murphy has said average daily traffic has increased from 2,000 vehicles a day in 1970 to more than 23,000 a day last year, when 80 accidents occurred. The accident rate last year was 25 percent higher than statewide averages for two-lane highways.