Arundel sees movement on Route 3 improvement

State highway officials optimistic that approvals for overhaul of road could come by end of the year


State highway officials said they hope to secure approvals this fall to overhaul a 9-mile, traffic-choked portion of Route 3 between Gambrills and Bowie, which would mark the first major movement on the $700 million project in four decades.

With the next wave of development - which could include a Wal-Mart and a Wegmans supermarket - set to hit the area and community frustration over traffic snarls at a boiling point in an election season, Anne Arundel County lawmakers have pressed the state on the roadwork.

Plans call for building a pedestrian-friendly boulevard on the Anne Arundel portion of Route 3 - about 6 1/2 miles. The upgrade could add lanes in some stretches, but specifics have not been formulated. The Prince George's County stretch of Route 3 would transition into a freeway.

Engineers could move to the design phase in January, and construction could begin by 2009, contingent on whether the county can obtain state funding and the costs don't spiral out of control.

The Army Corps of Engineers signed off last week in principle on environmentally sensitive portions of the project over the Patuxent River, and state officials said they are likely to gain consent from other environmental agencies within the next three weeks. More approvals, including one from the Federal Highway Administration, could come by the end of the year.

"We are in the process of getting over our highest hurdle, and then the rest is tweaking," said Wesley G. Mitchell, a State Highway Administration project manager. "As I look at things right now, we are in a very good position to move forward."

Route 3 had humble beginnings as a section of U.S. 301, which linked the Deep South to Baltimore. A few years before the birth of Crofton, in 1964, a 9-mile section of U.S. 301 between Bowie and Gambrills was reclassified as Route 3. Today, Route 3 links the U.S. 50/301 interchange to the south to Interstate 97-Route 32 to the north, and it is a popular way to bypass the Interstate 95 corridor.

The road's location between Washington and Baltimore led commuters to settle in towns that include Crofton, Odenton and Gambrills. In 2000, Anne Arundel County estimated the population of the Crofton-Odenton area at 65,000, a number that was expected to grow to 77,000 by 2020. A huge military expansion at Fort Meade in West County is likely to further boost that number.

The mix of local and regional traffic has pushed the six-lane road to the breaking point, according to residents. Last year, state records show, Route 3 attracted about 57,000 cars a day at Route 175, Waugh Chapel Road and Route 424. During afternoon rush hour, commuters can wait more than an hour to traverse Route 3.

Talk of a Route 3 upgrade dates to the 1970s, when state officials considered building an interstate bypass that would connect Baltimore to Richmond, Va. But the environmental challenges of designing a western bypass on 72 acres of wetlands along the Little Patuxent River proved too difficult. The cost of buying out homeowners and businesses killed the idea of an eastern bypass.

Other ideas that also fell by the wayside in the 1990s included high-occupancy vehicle lanes and a bridge over Route 424.

The road was instead upgraded from two lanes to four, then four lanes to six - all to meet new traffic demands.

Meanwhile, development continues at a rapid pace. At least 15 housing and commercial projects have been approved or are under way along the corridor, including two shopping centers, a 55,000-square-foot sports facility, a private school for 475 students and more than 1,100 residences.

That does not include the 2,000-home Two Rivers project in Odenton, scheduled to start next year. Or a possible state horse park on the former Naval Academy Dairy Farm near Routes 3 and 175, which supporters say could attract 800,000 visitors a year. The Halle Cos., meanwhile, is seeking state approvals to build a rubble landfill near the intersection of Routes 3 and 424, which could bring at least 400 dump trucks down Route 3, according to community activists.

Then there's the proposed 143,000-square-foot Wal-Mart across from the wrought-iron gates of Crofton, and the proposed 140,000-square-foot Wegmans, which would be part of a large residential-retail addition to the Village at Waugh Chapel.

Word of the proposed Wal-Mart and Wegmans this spring crystallized concern over development among residents and sparked a rallying cry for a short-term building ban in the corridor until the state improves Route 3.

If nothing is done, community leaders say, the clogged road will soon carry 100,000 cars a day, about the same as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Robert Brennan moved five years ago to Gambrills from Montgomery County, where, he said, local government failed to keep up with road improvements in the face of rampant overdevelopment.

"The same thing is happening in Crofton," he said.

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