It's dollars and sense

Howard dangles money as an incentive to the state to adjust its road priorities.

March 30, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

The problem was acute and getting worse: Key state roads cutting through Howard County were choking with congestion, sentencing motorists daily to endless delays and fits of fury.

Relief wasn't coming from Annapolis, so the county turned to James M. Irvin, its director of public works.

While traditionally it is the obligation of the state to bear the costs of improving its network of roads, Irvin proposed the unthinkable: Howard County would finance all of one project and half of two others in return for the state's commitment to give construction of them priority status.

The plan, eagerly accepted by the state, produced over five years three interchanges: At Route 175, where it meets Snowden River Parkway in Columbia; Johns Hopkins Road at U.S. 29, just south of Columbia; and at U.S. 29 and Route 216, near Laurel.

The combined cost of the projects was $53 million, of which the county paid about $35 million.

It is not that the county is flush with money. But it has something most counties do not - the excise tax.

The tax is imposed when one applies for a building permit, and the revenue is used for building or expanding public roads.

Normally, of course, that means county roads. But Irvin is not beyond dangling a few million dollars as an incentive to the state to adjust its road-improvement priorities.

It takes about 10 years, Irvin says, to get "from thinking stage" to construction on major road projects, and there are always more needs than state money. So, he says, if dipping into the excise tax revenue can move things along, why not?

"Historically, Route 216 was the county's top road project," he says. "It was on the list for many years. But there was no money for the interchanges. ... That's when the county proposed to forward-fund these three projects."

The interchanges, if not eliminating congestion, at least eased its stranglehold.

The county and state are near completing another project - a five-mile extension of Route 216, which will connect U.S. 29 and Interstate 95 and remove the necessity of commuters traveling on neighborhood roads.

The state had planned four lanes, but the county offered to kick in $3 million to bump the project to six lanes. If all goes well, the extension will open this summer.

Improving traffic flow on U.S. 29 has been a priority for several years because it is a primary road, used daily by thousands of motorists.

"There was a huge congestion problem," Irvin says. "People would end up short-cutting to get around that by going through the neighborhoods up and down the corridor. ... People were bailing off of 29 to get around the backups."

The options for the county, he says, were to pump money into U.S. 29 or to "tear up people's front yards and widen roads" in residential areas.

"The primary roads are what you want people to travel on," Irvin says. "The traffic really needs to be on these major [roads]."

Irvin acknowledges that initially there was criticism from those who preferred spending county funds on schools and other needs, not state roads.

"There was a lot of debate on whether we should do this or not; whether we should be funding state roads ... or whether that money could better be used for other things," he says.

That criticism has subsided, and Irvin says the county has benefited immensely by helping foot the bills.

"The reality is, if we didn't do this, the roads would never get fixed," he says. "It's very unlikely that any of these interchanges would be built today ... because the state does not have enough money. We felt they were critical needs."

The county's willingness to spend money improving state roads is an economic plus, says Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

"It's very valuable," he says. "It's an important selling tool for the office, because it's real evidence that we can deliver infrastructure in the time people need it. We tend to be much quicker than most jurisdictions."

Irvin, though, says that the practice is not designed to spur growth.

"These projects were driven primarily by the [traffic] backups and trying to anticipate things and keep up with them."

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