Commuter relief on the way

County expects to embark on a pair of major Marriottsville Road projects

December 16, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

For all the commuters trapped daily by rush-hour congestion in western Howard County, relief is coming. It may not work as quickly as Excedrin, but any reprieve is likely to be a welcome antidote to their stop-and-go existence.

It is virtually assured now that the county soon will embark on two major projects along Marriottsville Road, a key thoroughfare serving two planned communities and used by a growing number of motorists from outside the county.

The first is widening Marriottsville Road from Route 99 to U.S. 40. That will be accomplished through a combination of improvements financed by developers and the county.

The second, and by far the more complex, will be widening the Marriottsville bridge that passes over Interstate 70 and represents one of the most severe traffic backlogs in the county.

"Those will probably be the next immediate upgrades," said James M. Irvin, director of the county's Department of Public Works.

A third project - installing a roundabout at Route 144 and Marriottsville Road to maintain constant traffic flow - is also under consideration, but it is unclear whether that will be funded in the coming year, he said.

Details on the bridge project need to be worked out with state and federal officials. Those discussions probably will begin early next year.

Officials do not want to plan the bridge expansion until the federal government indicates its preferences for the proposed widening of sections of I-70 because the bridge and interstate lanes must be properly aligned, Irvin said.

Nonetheless, he anticipates that the design phase for the bridge will begin in the coming year.

The results of a study, released to the public a week ago, proposed, among other things, widening Marriottsville Road and the bridge to four lanes or to as many as seven lanes.

Initial cost estimates are $10 million to $12 million to expand the bridge to four lanes and $15 million to $17 million for seven lanes, though all of those costs could rise.

Irvin said, though, that it is unlikely the county and state would enlarge the bridge to beyond four lanes.

"Four lanes are probably what the capital [budget] envisions," he said. "I don't see us widening beyond that. ... That may be needed down the road."

It is possible a two-lane bridge will be constructed over I-70, and then attached to the existing suspension, doubling the number of lanes to four and unclogging the bottleneck, he said, because that approach would cause fewer disruptions for commuters during construction.

The design stage will take about a year, and construction up to another two years, Irvin said, assuming there are no delays because of land acquisition, permits or the need for environmental work.

While that may seem like an interminable schedule for commuters, Irvin said that schedule "is short. ... A new road normally takes 10 to 12 years."

There are questions affecting the project that must be answered: Whether the eastbound ramp at Marriottsville Road and I-70 should be relocated several hundred feet so the shoulder on Marriottsville could be used as a lane to allow motorists to bypass people making a turn onto the interstate, or to temporarily install signals at the ramp entrances.

The widening of the road will be done in conjunction with the developers of Waverly Woods and Turf Valley, Irvin said.

Marriottsville will be widened to four lanes from I-70 to Route 99 by the developer of Waverly Woods, probably in the next year or two, Irvin said. To the south, a section of the road will be expanded to three lanes by Mangione Family Enterprises to accommodate traffic generated by the expansion of Turf Valley, the luxury resort and planned community.

The county, Irvin said, will fill in gaps where Marriottsville is less than four lanes.

The widening, he said, should significantly improve traffic flow on the road.

The study by STV Inc. of Baltimore did more than identify road improvements that are necessary to relieve congestion. It had the ancillary effect of diluting one of the major arguments by opponents of the planned expansion of Turf Valley.

Opponents of the development have consistently cited estimated vehicle counts to bolster their arguments that heavy congestion will result from approving plans by Mangione to add several hundred acres and homes and commercial office space to Turf Valley.

But executives of STV said what is critical is not the number of vehicles using Marriottsville Road but the level of traffic flow on the road.

While the two are not absolutely unrelated, the industry standard is to focus on acceptable vehicle movement. In presenting his findings and recommendations, the chief project manager for STV did not quantify existing or projected traffic counts but the quality of traffic flow.

Further, STV executives said a major component of the congestion on Marriottsville Road results not from existing or projected development but from commuters from outside the county, particularly from Carroll County.

STV also recommended widening projects for I-70. But Irvin said it is doubtful those will begin in the near future.

"Obviously it is needed, but it's a political decision," he said. " ... That's a big-ticket item. The state is constrained financially from making long-term commitments to road projects. Short term, I don't see it happening right away."

Although some of the county's planned road improvements are for state-controlled roads, Irvin said it is critical that work on them begins as soon as practical.

"If they don't get fixed, then we have people taking shortcuts through neighborhoods to get around the backups," he said.

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