The daily northbound commuter backup on U.S. 29 near Columbia won't likely ease until a third lane is completed in roughly four years, but $11 million in federal money will help, officials said.
Congress has approved two versions of a five-year federal transportation bill that is expected to funnel $15.6 million in federal funds to Howard County to help pay the estimated $250 million cost for widening U.S. 29 and Route 32. The funds will also help cover the $10 million price tag for a new bus maintenance facility to be shared with Anne Arundel County.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a $275 billion package this month, smaller than the $318 billion the Senate passed in February, so a conference committee will have to make them match. President Bush must also sign the transportation bill for it to become law. But U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who also represents much of Howard County, said the money for local projects should not be affected.
The federal funding may not cover the bulk of the project's costs, but it can help get them rolling, allowing the county to use local funding for other problems.
The U.S. 29 project will cost about $50 million, for example, according to the county's capital budget plan. But County Executive James N. Robey is willing to put up local excise tax money to improve a state road to get the job done faster - something Howard County has done before.
"This is a project that the county thinks is important enough that we're willing to put our money up," said Ronald Lepson, chief of engineering for the county Public Works Department.
Lepson said officials fear that if northbound congestion on U.S. 29 from Johns Hopkins Road to Route 175 is allowed to worsen, traffic may begin diverting into residential neighborhoods as motorists seek short cuts.
The project will take about four years and will be done in three phases, starting with the segment between Route 32 and Broken Land Parkway. Phase II will extend the widened portion north to Route 175, and the southernmost section, south of Route 32, will come last. Design is to begin in the fiscal year starting July 1 and construction will begin roughly a year later.
The $2 million for Route 32 widening is 1 percent of the estimated total cost, but state officials could use the funds to help begin a $20 million to $25 million safety improvement project at Burntwoods Road, where state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan held a news conference March 9.
Some local residents oppose widening Route 32 because they fear it will draw even more commuter traffic from Carroll and Frederick counties, worsening - not helping - congestion. But Flanagan, a Republican who formerly represented the area in the House of Delegates, said in a letter Thursday that the Burntwoods Road portion of the project would "provide a safer condition for motorists."
The project would eliminate a traffic signal on Route 32, flatten part of the existing curve in the road and provide a bridge over the highway with service roads on Ten Oaks and Pfefferkorn roads to give local residents safer access.
Construction there is scheduled to begin in spring 2007, according to State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pederson.
The $10 million bus maintenance facility could use $2.6 million of the federal funds to buy a 12-acre site and begin design work, according to Carl S. Balser, the county's transportation planner.
"The problem up to this point is finding a site," Balser said, adding that county officials are looking at three different locations.
Howard County ultimately expects to pay no more than 15 percent of the total cost of the facility, which will be funded mainly by the federal and state governments and Anne Arundel County.
Yellow Transportation services the county's green Howard Transit buses at its facility now, but county officials say that if a public garage could be built, it could be used for other local bus systems serving Laurel and western Anne Arundel County, and competitive bidding could cut costs over the long term.
"One of the main reasons we want to do this is we feel we can save money," Balser said.