Plan to add lanes divisive

Officials say peril justifies Smart Growth exemption for Route 32 in Howard

Foes fear added traffic, sprawl

July 20, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

State transportation officials say Route 32 through western Howard County is so dangerous to drive that a proposal to widen it ought to be granted a rare exemption from Maryland's Smart Growth law, which bars spending on highway projects that might encourage sprawl development.

The rate of rear-end collisions on the often-congested nine-mile stretch of Route 32, which links Carroll County with Annapolis, is twice the statewide average, but the overall accident rate is about 10 percent lower and the rate of fatal accidents in recent years is half that on other two-lane roads in Maryland, according to State Highway Administration figures.

Environmentalists and community activists have seized on the state's accident data to argue that safety improvements to Route 32 in recent years have removed the need to widen the road now.

In a letter sent yesterday to the Maryland Board of Public Works, which is to decide the issue tomorrow, the activists and a group of western Howard County families contend that expanding the road to four lanes would promote more low-density development and traffic in one of the fastest-growing areas of the state.

"It is just going to make the situation worse and potentially more dangerous," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a Baltimore-based group that seeks to encourage development in and around existing communities.

She contends that approving the widening would spur more rapid growth in once-rural Carroll, Frederick and western Howard counties, even though the state lacks the estimated $200 million needed to complete the project.

The state's Smart Growth law, enacted in 1997, seeks to limit state spending on roads, schools and other public infrastructure to designated growth areas in each county, usually around towns or cities.

"This project would constitute the kind of state subsidy for costly sprawl development that the law was intended to preclude," argues the letter, which is signed by more than two dozen families from West Friendship, one of the growing formerly rural communities along the road.

The law allows state spending on some projects outside "priority funding areas" if they meet one of a handful of narrow exceptions. State officials say congestion and the road's current and projected accident rates constitute "exceptional circumstances" that would warrant the second exception ever granted to the Smart Growth law.

State officials acknowledged yesterday that accident rates have dropped on Route 32 since a center-line rumble strip and left-turn lanes were installed and other safety improvements were made in the late 1990s. But those gains are temporary, they say. The accident rate has begun rising again as new housing developments in Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties funnel more traffic onto the road, making it the most heavily traveled two-lane stretch in Maryland.

"The accidents we're seeing and the future risks our citizens are being exposed to are compelling," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday during a meeting of state Cabinet secretaries charged with carrying out Smart Growth. "There is no alternative."

He noted that one or more vehicle occupants were injured in 40 percent of the rear-end accidents.

Traffic on that stretch of Route 32 has nearly tripled since 1990, from about 9,900 vehicles ar day to 28,900 a day, according to state figures. One reason for that increase could be seen on a map state officials reviewed yesterday. It shows 34 subdivisions approved in western Howard, many of them since the Smart Growth law took effect.

"The growth has already been approved, and the road is absolutely necessary," state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott said in explaining her agency's endorsement of widening the road.

A majority of nine land-use experts commissioned by the State Highway Administration to study the project agreed two years ago that widening Route 32 would stimulate more rapid growth in southeastern Carroll County. In their report, which was released last week, the experts split over the potential for increased development in Howard and Frederick counties.

"Although it was hard for the panel to agree what the impacts would be and how substantial they would be, the panel in general did think there would be impacts," said Daniel Pontious, regional policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and one of the experts.

State highway officials said yesterday that development will increase traffic on the road whether it is widened or not. Only widening could keep accidents from increasing, they said, although they presented no formal studies of alternatives.

"I don't understand what the rush is," Harriet Tregoning, special secretary for Smart Growth in the Glendening administration, said when asked about the dispute.

"Things were done to make 32 safer that seem to have had some efficacy," said Tregoning, who is director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington. "The safety exemption isn't some canard you can haul out whenever you want to build something."

Although the state lacks the money to widen all of Route 32, transportation officials say they need to get the project approved in concept to make it eligible for future federal funding.

The Board of Public Works, which must decide on exceptions to the law, is made up of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

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