A panel of experts questioned the idea yesterday of using 4-year-old data to determine the long-term effects of widening Route 32 through western Howard County.
The panel repeatedly asked state officials why data on development and traffic trends in the region were largely from 1996 or earlier - and what good the information is now.
A handful of residents listened to the discussion, happy to be at a meeting that was originally intended to be closed to the public. Some people oppose widening Route 32, which changes from a four-lane, divided highway to a two-lane road past the intersection with Route 108 in Clarksville as it heads toward Carroll County.
The State Highway Administration is looking at three options: widening the road to four lanes from Route 108 to Interstate 70, adding interchanges, or doing nothing.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey and Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. favor widening the highway because they think the road poses a safety threat as congestion worsens because of population growth. But some opponents say a four-lane road would attract development, ultimately making traffic worse.
The controversy prompted state officials to hire the panel of land-use experts who are to determine the effect that each of the options would have on nearby property and adjacent counties.
The panel, composed mainly of developers, engineers and real estate experts, was not asked to recommend a course of action. It is to issue a report in February.
SHA officials have said that average daily traffic on Route 32 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.
But much of the data given to panel members yesterday was compiled from 1990 to 1996.
Rutter told the panel members that the data wasn't useful. During that period, the county was dealing with a recession and zoning changes, he said.
"This is information overload on stuff, quite frankly, I don't see the relevancy of," he said.
Panel member Nancy Lefenfeld, who conducts market research for developers, wanted to see the trends but agreed with Rutter. "To have 1996 as our cutoff point sort of leaves us hanging in midair," she said.
Joe Tassone, deputy chief of comprehensive planning for the Maryland Department of Planning, said his office worked with the data available.
"Our opinion is that you are not losing much by not having the last four years," he said.
Bill Woodcock, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, which has not taken a position on the Route 32 options, said after the meeting that updated statistics are important.
"Getting the people who live in the area to buy into the outcome of whatever this committee recommends is going to depend in part on the accuracy of the information the committee considers," said Woodcock, one of the citizens who attended the meeting. "If your data is bad, then your results are bad."
"That's going to be the challenge of this committee," he said.
Rutter said afterward that he would bring current statistics about development trends to the next meeting, scheduled Jan. 16.
Deborah Izzi, president of the Citizens' Alliance for Rural Preservation, which opposes widening Route 32, said she is "flabbergasted" that outdated data were given to the panel.
She said she doesn't believe the panel has been given enough time to reach conclusions about the effects of changing Route 32.
"The panel members have been charged with a mammoth job," she said.
Carole Conors, president of the League of Women Voters of Howard County, was pleased that the meeting was open. She was among those who protested when the SHA announced that the meetings would be closed.
"They're asking valuable questions," Conors said of the panel. "I think a lot of these people are sharp."