A road to sprawl

July 21, 2004

AS DEMOLITION crews last week began work on redeveloping Anne Arundel County's Parole area, Ehrlich administration officials loudly trumpeted their new version of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's anti-sprawl Smart Growth policies. The current administration has come up with a "Priority Places" program that seeks to manage growth by fostering revitalization of established areas.

That's well and good. As we've noted, infill and redevelopment projects are essential components of a comprehensive approach to managing Maryland's growth. Trouble is, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seems to be interested in only that - not in using transportation and land-use policies to steer growth. Without that broader vision, sprawl will continue to chew up Maryland's landscape and quality of life.

A clear case is this administration's passion for spending an estimated $200 million on widening Route 32 from two lanes to four between Route 108 and Interstate 70 in a largely rural area of Howard County. The proposed project comes before the state Board of Public Works today for approval, and it's in the best interests of the state for the board to reject it. Here's why:

The drive to widen Route 32 is born of sprawl and would encourage more - particularly in Carroll County, where by contrast a new set of commissioners is finally tempering the torrid pace of development. This project would reward Carroll's earlier irresponsibility in allowing runaway growth. By taking the last step in turning Route 32 into an outer beltway linking Interstates 70 and 97, it would crank up growth pressures as far away as Frederick County and Pennsylvania - by promising to facilitate an even greater number of long-distance commuters, which Maryland doesn't need.

The state's primary argument for widening this stretch of Route 32 - safety - appears specious. The build-out of western Howard and southern Carroll, coupled with earlier widening of stretches of Route 32 south of Route 108, have induced traffic on the road to more than quintuple since 1980; accidents have grown with that. But the overall accident, injury and fatality rates on the stretch of Route 32 to be widened actually have declined substantially this decade and are now well below comparable statewide averages. Rather than argue for widening, state highway data appear to confirm the effectiveness of the much-less-costly safety improvements made along this part of Route 32 in recent years.

Last but not least, there are much better uses for $200 million, particularly given that Maryland is projected to be strapped for transportation funds for years to come. Some of this money could pay for more safety improvements along Route 32. Some could go to further upgrades of the already developed Route 29 corridor, part of the main alternative for many Route 32 commuters. Some could be spent in other established areas, per Mr. Ehrlich's Priority Places plan. And some could be spent on bringing to life the Baltimore regional rail system, expanded mass transit that the administration has only reluctantly backed.

Given the strides that Maryland has made in coming to grips with sprawl, it's stunning that state officials would demand this project now. Unhappily, it raises the fundamental question of whether this governor even understands the necessity for effectively managing growth.

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