Declaring that reducing traffic accidents and easing congestion trumps concerns about suburban sprawl, state transportation officials said yesterday that they would forge ahead with a long-debated widening of Route 32 through western Howard County.
The state Department of Transportation is seeking an exception to Maryland's Smart Growth law to widen a nine-mile stretch of the heavily traveled highway connecting Carroll County with Annapolis, even though planning officials have acknowledged the project from Interstate 70 to Route 108 is likely to encourage more residential development in a once-rural area that has experienced major growth.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about the debate over widening Route 32 in Howard County incorrectly reported state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan's legislative experience and where he lives. He served in the House of Delegates. While there, he represented western Howard County, though he lives in Ellicott City. Also, State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen's name was misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.
"This highway is so dangerous," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday, "that Jim Robey, the Howard County executive, testified that he warns his family not to drive on this road."
Even though funding for the widening, expected to cost more than $200 million, is in question, Flanagan said that he was seeking approval to proceed from the state Board of Public Works now because he and other transportation officials see it as the only way to make the highway safer and less congested. The board, made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, is scheduled to review the issue July 21.
The move is likely to be welcomed by many commuters who must endure the bumper-to-bumper crawl during morning and evening rush hours, but it bothers opponents of sprawl who worry that it will further promote more low-density development in western Howard and Carroll counties.
They contend that the Ehrlich administration is undercutting the Smart Growth law enacted in the late 1990s, which says state money is to be spent only on roads, schools and other projects in and around existing communities.
"This highway is a big sprawl-maker, which the state can't afford," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide anti-sprawl group.
She and other opponents of widening Route 32 contend that state highway officials have managed to make the road safer in recent years and should be required to exhaust all alternatives before expanding it to four lanes.
The law provides only for rare exceptions to the ban on funding projects outside of designated growth areas, but state transportation officials say the traffic and congestion of Route 32 qualify as those "extraordinary circumstances."
Although state figures indicate the overall rate of traffic accidents on the two-lane stretch is about 10 percent lower than for comparable two-lane roads elsewhere in Maryland, transportation officials noted that there are more than twice as many rear-end collisions.
"Of all the accidents, the ones that come into play here are rear-end fender-benders where nobody's hurt," said George Maurer, senior planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "That's a pretty weak justification that we really have to skirt one of the most important tools we have for managing growth."
Known for some tragic head-on collisions over the years, the highway has been made somewhat safer, state officials say, by putting grooves down the centerline to alert drivers when they stray, and by putting in left-turn lanes.
The number of fatal and severe accidents has declined in recent years, said Neil J. Pederson, state highway administrator, but there still were four fatalities and 186 people injured in the past 3 1/2 years.
"I actually am very encouraged by the short-term improvements that we've made," Pederson said, but he added, "I expect, as congestion continues to increase, we'll start to see those numbers creep back up again."
Traffic has grown from 4,200 vehicles a day in 1980 to 28,125 last year, according to state figures, and projections are that it will increase by another 46 percent by 2025.
Transportation officials announced this year that they intended to proceed with plans to build an interchange to replace a couple of particularly hazardous intersections in Glenelg.
That interchange, which is expected to cost $20 million to $25 million, is one of several transportation projects made possible by the doubling of motor vehicle registration fees that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. got the legislature to approve this year. The rest of the highway would be widened as money becomes available.
But opponents of widening in western Howard contend that the state is rushing to judgment, without due consideration of alternatives that might not fuel even more growth.
"If you widen the road, you'll have a short period of lessened congestion, but in the long run, all it'll do is facilitate growth in the area and you'll be right back where you started," said Richard Gezelle of West Friendship, a member of Citizens Alliance for Rural Preservation. Gezelle questioned why the State Highway Administration hasn't released a report finished two years ago on the land-use impact of the project.
But the transportation secretary, noting the increasing traffic, contends that the growth has already happened.
"This project isn't causing growth," Flanagan said. "It is responding to growth and dealing with growth in a responsible way - to protect people from traffic accidents on the highway."
Flanagan, who lives in western Howard County, said he voted for Gov. Parris Glendening's Smart Growth legislation when he was a state senator representing the county, but he was assured at the time that it would not preclude widening Route 32. Managing growth in the vicinity of the highway, he said, is "really a local government issue."