UMBC students analyze controversial plan to widen Route 32

Class' study concludes in favor of state proposal, with a caveat

December 22, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Nine years of controversy has produced a small mountain of reports on the state's proposal to widen Route 32. Today, the pile will grow by another 62 pages.

The newest study, however, does not come from a state agency pushing for the project, nor from residents bitterly opposing it. The policy analysis was done by graduate students at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who claim at least one advantage over other studies: lack of bias.

"We don't live in the area," said Ben Lloyd. "None of us had a stake in widening Route 32 or not."

Instead, the students wrote the report striving for something more important to them: a good grade. The lengthy policy analysis is the work of 12 graduate students in a fall semester course on public policy. It will be posted on the university's Web site today.

Controversy has hung over Route 32 since 1995, when the state began studying widening the nine-mile stretch between Route 108 and Interstate 70. Residents believe the project would cause sprawl in their neighborhoods. State officials argue it is the best way to relieve congestion and increase safety.

In the report, the students concluded in favor of the state's proposal to widen Route 32 from two lanes to four. The recommendation comes with a caveat, however. If decision-makers consider the cost and the matters of sprawl, noise and the environment of greater significance than the issue of congestion on Route 32, the students recommended keeping the road two lanes but making it a limited-access highway with additional interchanges.

The conclusion likely will please State Highway Administration officials who have long pushed to widen the road. But the report also included a barb aimed at those officials, who the students said were not open enough with the public.

"The feeling we got was that the SHA is doing things by fiat rather than by consultation," said Kate Goddard, a doctoral student who led the project with Lloyd.

As the students researched the issue, they said they had trouble getting data from the administration, echoing a frequent complaint among groups opposing the project that as a government agency, SHA is not open enough.

"Clearly, SHA is not going to please people all the time, but this is a really controversial issue. There's a need to be more sensitive," Goddard said.

Having turned in their report last week, the students are awaiting grades and public reaction to their study.

"I think people's reaction is going to depend on how they feel about our results," Lloyd said. "If they disagree with us, they'll probably just look at us as a bunch of students. But if they agree, they might use this to back their arguments."

Either way, the students and the two professors who taught them hope the study influences the debate.

The students spent three months researching the project. They waded through stacks of traffic studies, attended public forums and borrowed a school shuttle bus for field trip on Route 32 during rush hour.

They also invited representatives from resident groups and state and county agencies to give one-hour presentations.

Rick Gezelle, who helped form a resident group opposing the proposal to widen, visited the class in October to present his side of the argument. He called the study a "valiant attempt," but disputed its conclusions.

"The students didn't have enough time to really dive deep into the issue," he said. "Their work didn't go deep enough to support a particular conclusion."

SHA's director of planning, said his department has not seen the final report, but will take a look once it is posted.

"I'm not sure how thoroughly it will be reviewed because it is a study done by students," said Raja Veeramachaneni. "But their advice about working openly with community groups is well placed. In fact, that's what [national laws] require of us."

Professor Donald F. Norris praised his students' report and said that after it is released today, students will learn another key lesson about public policy: "You're never going to make everyone happy."

"But I agree with their conclusions," he said. "The students did very good job."

Good enough for an "A"?

Norris declined to comment, except to say, "I don't think anybody will be disappointed with their grade."

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