Carroll County's newest commissioner proposed an elaborate and expensive project yesterday to bring a federal highway to the rural area by extending U.S. 29 from Howard County and building an artery that would bisect Carroll and include bypasses of Westminster and Taneytown.
Under his proposal, Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer said, federal funds could transform the county's state roads to provide commuters with a high-speed U.S. highway.
"Compared to most of our neighboring counties, we're almost landlocked," Zimmer said. "My concept is to get the feds to help us out."
Though Zimmer's new plan would develop U.S. 29 along existing roads, outfitting those routes for high-volume traffic and building bypasses could easily cost billions of dollars, according to state highway engineer David Coyne.
"Given the current funding priorities, it's not realistic that anything like this would happen anytime soon," Coyne, whose district includes Carroll, Howard and Frederick counties, said in an interview. "Something in the billions raises the challenge exponentially, to try to get something like that funded."
With little debate, Commissioners Julia W. Gouge and Dean L. Minnich approved Zimmer's request to form a task force to study the mammoth proposal.
County officials said federal highway funds could expedite projects the state has not funded along the South Carroll Route 32 corridor and around Taneytown.
"The federal government has a wonderful thing called `earmarking' on transportation bills," Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff, said yesterday. "This has incredible potential to open up economic development for us."
Adding lanes to Route 32 in each direction between Interstate 70 and Route 26 would alleviate congestion and spur business development in growing South Carroll, county officials said. So far, the state has acknowledged but not committed to funding that project.
The county has guaranteed $2.5 million toward a state project on a half-mile portion of Route 32 to ease congestion and reduce accidents, with reconstruction set to begin this summer.
"We're certainly cognizant that we need additional capacity focusing on [Route] 32 all the way down to Howard County," Coyne said.
Currently, less than a mile of U.S. highway - Interstate 70 in Mount Airy - "kisses" Carroll County, Zimmer said. Local residents quashed previous attempts in the 1990s to extend I-795 through the county and into Pennsylvania.
Zimmer's proposal would also revive 40-year-old plans for a Westminster bypass. Carroll's previous board of commissioners scrapped the $500 million project that was also rejected by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening as part of his Smart Growth anti-sprawl campaign.
A bypass of Taneytown, to provide direct access to industrial zones, could help increase the county's low commercial tax base, Zimmer said. The highway would then connect to U.S. 15 in the Emmitsburg area of Frederick County, he said.
Even if his dream of a superhighway isn't realized, Zimmer said securing federal funds for projects in the south and northwest areas of the county could help businesses and reduce commuting times.
The planned business park at the Warfield Complex in Sykesville "is the rocket on the launching pad" that would take off if Route 32 were transformed into a proper highway, Zimmer said.
He said he has not approached officials from Howard or Frederick counties about the plan, but he has briefed Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.
South Carroll Del. Susan W. Krebs said this is the first she has heard of the proposal.
Krebs said she worried that it could jeopardize years of plans for the state to add lanes to Route 32, from Eldersburg to Howard County. And Krebs stressed that the state is ultimately responsible for allocating all federal transportation funds.
"The county can't just go to the federal government and say, `Oh, can you fund this road?'" Krebs said. "That's not the way the process works. He really needs to do his homework before he starts announcing things."