Route 32 expansion project rejected by many residents

More traffic, property loss noted at public meeting

October 29, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

During a meeting punctuated by protests, state transportation officials presented a controversial proposal last night to widen a nine-mile section of Route 32.

It was the first major public meeting since the state Board of Public Works exempted the project from strict anti-sprawl regulations in July, clearing a path for project planners to seek state and federal funds and begin the design process.

Many residents in western Howard County have protested the plan, forming advocacy groups, distributing fliers and writing letters to state officials.

The expanded roadway, they maintain, would unleash runaway sprawl in their neighborhoods, eliminating farms and open space, and eventually leading to traffic gridlock.

They showed their opposition last night by standing up when transportation officials asked how many in the audience were against the project.

Marty Hays, one of those who stood, later said his house is on Route 32. The expansion project would force two of his neighbors out of their homes and cut a path through his front yard.

"We're not just talking about preserving rural open space anymore," he said. "We're talking about our preservation now."

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan responded to the hostile crowd, "This is something I hope everyone would support. This is a safety project ... a life-saver."

The proposed project would expand Route 32 from two lanes to four lanes in the section between Route 108 and Interstate 70.

The added lanes are necessary, transportation officials said, because the road is dangerous and congested. The road also links Annapolis to Carroll County, one of the state's fastest-growing areas.

Residents have dismissed the state's argument of congestion and danger.

"Adding the lanes is just going to induce even more traffic. In a couple of years, you're going to have gridlock," said Rick Gezelle, a West Friendship resident who helped form an advocacy group, A Better Plan for 32.

As for the danger, state transportation figures show that in recent years the overall accident rate on Route 32 has been lower than the state average.

State officials, however, attribute that to safety improvements - center-line rumble strips and left-turn lanes - which were added in the late 1990s. They believe the accidents will increase as traffic does. Traffic on that stretch of Route 32 has almost tripled since 1990, from 9,900 to 28,900 vehicles a day, according to state transportation figures.

The project could take 20 years and is projected to cost about $200 million.

Vincent DiPietro, 65, was one of the few audience members who spoke in favor of adding lanes to the highway. He said he drove from his home Carroll County to attend the meeting because traffic congestion on Route 32 had consumed too many hours of his life.

"There are other people who use that road," he said. "You've got to consider other people's feelings. Don't deny my access."

Widening Route 32 has been embroiled in controversy since the state began studying the project in 1995. Four years later, the project came to a halt after it was criticized at a public hearing. Smart Growth laws put in place by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening also blocked funding for the Route 32 project until state officials voted this summer to allow for an exemption to the laws.

Now residents and environmental groups are gearing up for another battle. One group has retained a traffic engineer to produce alternative plans and sketches to counter the State Highway Administration's plans.

The next step for the Route 32 project will be to begin designs and to obtain funding from the state and the federal government. If approved, the first phase would be to build an interchange at the Burntwoods Road intersection. The interchange would cost about $27 million; construction would begin in 2008.

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