Probably the most contentious transportation issue in Howard is what to do about the two-lane stretch of Route 32 that has been carrying an ever-heavier burden of commuter traffic ever more slowly across the county's western landscape.
For several years, some transportation planners and residents have argued that for safety and convenience, the road ought to become the multi-lane artery west of Route 108 at Clarksville that it is east to Anne Arundel County.
Other residents, however, have argued that keeping Route 32 two lanes is vital to avoid total suburbanization of the county's rural west.
Faced with these urgent and conflicting imperatives, state and county governments are as stalled today as rush-hour traffic on two-lane Route 32.
In 2000, the State Highway Administration convened a committee of land-use experts to determine whether extra lanes would spur more development in the region, as opponents fear.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey promised to delay deciding which action to support until the committee produced a report, which had been expected shortly after the panel's last meeting - 19 months ago. He is still waiting to see the report.
At the time, most of the committee members verbally predicted that widening would result in more homes in Howard and nearby counties, although some of them called the impact "minor."
Since then, traffic has continued to increase on the nine-mile stretch between Clarksville and Interstate 70, although safety improvements - such as a rumble strip down the center to help prevent crossover collisions - seem to have helped.
Between I-70 and Route 32, highway officials recorded 38 accidents 1992, 80 in 1999 and 68 last year. Fifteen people were killed during that period, one-third of them in 1998.
From 1990 to last year, the average number of vehicles a day more than doubled to 20,9757 at the I-70 end of the stretch - in West Friendship - and 26,875 on the Clarksville end.
The long wait for a report heartens people opposed to widening the road: They see it as a sign that the road might remain two lanes. They believe that safety has improved recently, but that widening would bring more homes, businesses and traffic.
"The traffic jam would still be there; we'd just have more cars," said Debbie Izzi, who lives in a subdivision next to Route 32 and is president of the Citizens' Alliance for Rural Preservation.
People in favor of action - including western Howard's three state legislators and some who live along the road - are frustrated by the delay.
"Standard bureaucracy," sighed Dominic Weston, 41, who is living in limbo because his house in West Friendship would be demolished if Route 32 were widened.
"Nobody wants to commit to anything," Weston said. "What are they waiting for? It's pretty obvious, the problems the road's got."
Although panelists, too, are surprised by the amount of time the report has taken, they said they have spent months going over drafts written by state highway consultants, trying to satisfy everyone on the diverse committee. Members range from a developer to an environmental advocate.
"There may not be any clear answers on [Route] 32," said panelist Douglas R. Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute in Chevy Chase, who also sat on an earlier panel for I-270.
"This was a very tough assignment and may not have been an appropriate process ... for a highway corridor that was too much part of a [road] network as opposed to being a separate thing that could stand alone," Porter said.
The last panelist to sign off on the report did so a month ago, but now it needs to be printed and reviewed by agency administrators, said Heather Murphy, a state highway planner coordinating the effort.
She expects to distribute copies early next year.
The wait might be delaying decisions on the road, but there is no money for major work yet, Murphy added.
"We don't see any hopes of moving forward on the process until there's more revenue out there to play around with," she said.
State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a western Howard Republican, believes that the road has to be widened eventually "or else you'll have gridlock and it'll shut down this community."
But first he would like to see interchanges replace some of the traffic lights to reduce collisions and backups, and he and the two west Howard delegates have asked Robey to make that a priority.
"I think it's time to start selling the state that we all want it," Kittleman said.
Whatever happens to the stretch will affect Carroll County, for which Route 32 is the major artery south, said Scott Graf, a planner there. Carroll County officials favor widening Route 32 from the county line north to Route 26, but that might not be feasible if the western Howard section remains two lanes, he said.
The fate of the road also will influence the success - or failure - of Sykesville leaders' plans for a high-tech employment campus alongside Route 32, Graf said.
"The town of Sykesville has a lot hinging on the improvement of the road," he said.