Rte. 32 remedy looks far off

Transportation secretary supports safety measures

Community divided on a solution

`Global issue' needs input of many, Flanagan says

March 27, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Maryland's new transportation secretary said yesterday that he supports safety improvements on Route 32 in western Howard County, but he implied that people shouldn't hold their breath waiting to hear whether the long-argued-over highway will be widened.

A decision about the road's future could be reached this year, next year or maybe not for a while, Robert L. Flanagan said after a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce in Howard, his home county.

Officials have debated whether to widen the road, which drops from four lanes to two at Route 108 in Clarksville. The State Highway Administration has offered three options for Route 32 as it runs from Route 108 to Interstate 70 in West Friendship: expand it to four lanes with interchanges, build only the interchanges or leave the road as it is.

Flanagan wouldn't say whether he favors one of those solutions.

"That's one of those global issues that a lot of people need to be involved in, people in the community," he said.

That community is divided.

Some who live alongside Route 32 think widening is the best way to improve safety because their driveways would connect to service roads instead of the highway. They feel as though they are taking their lives into their hands turning onto and off the road.

Others - who are more organized - say extra lanes would inevitably bring extra traffic, noise and dust, and contribute to development of rural areas in the west.

Commuters are flocking to the highway in ever-larger numbers. From 1990 to 2001, the average number of vehicles a day doubled to about 21,000 at the I-70 end of the stretch - and at the Route 108 side, nearly tripled to 27,000.

Flanagan said he favors safety improvements above those added by highway officials in the past few years, although he could not say when those might be constructed.

"As soon as we get the new State Highway Administration [administrator] installed, safety is going to be one of his highest priorities," he said.

Flanagan, a Republican who represented western Howard and Ellicott City as a state delegate before being appointed recently to handle Maryland transportation issues, said he asked County Executive James N. Robey last year to lobby for safety improvements on Route 32. The state considers county priorities when allocating funds.

Robey replied at the time that he had promised to wait for a long-awaited report on Route 32 from a panel of experts, which had been asked by state highway officials to predict the impact that widening would have on development patterns in the region. The expert panel last met nearly two years ago and signed off on the report in November.

Now it is in Flanagan's hands - or at least in his office. The report needs to be reviewed by state transportation officials before it can be released, said Heather Murphy, a state highway planner who coordinated the Route 32 panel.

"It's up there waiting for them, whenever they get time," Murphy said, but she added that this delay is not by itself holding up Route 32 changes. "The big thing is, we don't have any money right now. There's nothing we can do until funding becomes available."

Deborah Izzi, president of the Citizens' Alliance for Rural Preservation, which was formed in 1996 to oppose widening Route 32, said she was pleased to hear Flanagan's thoughts about next steps.

"It's very encouraging that he wants to look at safety issues, and he wants to involve people before he does anything," said Izzi, whose group has met with Flanagan in the past. "It has a big impact on the lives of the people here."

During the meeting with the Howard County Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Flanagan also said he expects the Intercounty Connector highway proposed for Montgomery will have positive effects locally.

The ICC debate - far hotter and longer than the arguments over Route 32 - has divided people eager for a simpler way to travel east-west in Montgomery County from those who believe it would devastate the environment. The road would run from Interstate 270 in Rockville to Interstate 95 in Laurel.

"It's been on the books for 40 years. We're going to build it," Flanagan said.

He said he expects the highway would help link the high-tech I-270 corridor to other job markets, so Howard residents could more easily commute there to work and Howard businesses could draw employees from the Rockville area.

"You bring these corridors together," he said.

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