For years, it was only an item on a long wish list, but the $20.4 million expansion of Route 216, now completed and opened to motorists, is expected to greatly improve rush-hour traffic in Howard County.
The project included relocating a section of heavily traveled Route 216 and construction of six lanes that stretch for 2.8 miles. It also provides a needed link between U.S. 29 and Interstate 95, two key expressways for commuters in the metropolitan area.
"This was the No. 1 transportation priority in Howard County for many years," said James M. Irvin, director of the county's Department of Public Works. "It provides relief in the southeastern corridor ... and allows the county to continue its orderly development in that region."
Neil J. Pedersen, state highway administrator, said the project opened this week will have immediate and long-term advantages.
"There are three principal benefits," he said. "The first and most important is safety improvements," because Route 216 has been relocated off of Scaggsville Road, which is only two lanes, has narrow shoulders and no sidewalks.
The project, Pedersen said, will also result in "improved mobility and congestion relief" as well as accommodating projected traffic increases in that area.
The state said 17,500 cars use Route 216 daily. That is expected to increase to more than 55,000 in 2030 as large developments, such as Maple Lawn, Maryland, are completed.
The project should also ease traffic on U.S. 29 and in some residential areas. "There was a huge congestion problem," Irvin said in March. "People would end up short-cutting to get around that by going through the neighborhoods up and down the corridor."
The project was an effort of the state and county. The State Highway Administration had planned to make Route 216 four lanes, but Irvin recommended that the county pay $3.9 million to have the road expanded to six lanes. Construction began in 2002.
"We have a great partnership with Howard County," Pedersen said. "We have been able to accelerate a lot more highway improvements in [the county] because of the funding partnership."
Over the past five years, the county offered to finance all of one project and half of two others in return for the state's commitment to give the county's needs priority. The combined cost of those projects was $53 million, of which the county paid about $35 million.
The joint projects have included three interchanges: Route 175, where it meets Snowden River Parkway in Columbia; Johns Hopkins Road at U.S. 29, just south of Columbia; and U.S. 29 and Route 216, near Laurel.
The county's portion was paid with funds generated from an excise tax, which is imposed on building permit applications and is restricted for building or expanding public roads.