Transportation chief takes dim view of Carroll official's U.S. 29 plan

March 11, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,sun reporter

Maryland's new secretary of transportation is discouraging a Carroll County commissioner from lobbying for federal dollars for a highway project that is also underscoring growing tensions on the local board.

Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer's proposed extension of U.S. 29 from Howard County would bisect Carroll and include bypasses of Westminster and Taneytown.

"We would encourage the county not to pursue separate federal ... funding for independent projects," Secretary John D. Porcari recently wrote in a letter to Zimmer. "Rather, we encourage the county to work with the department on projects of mutual interest."

Zimmer's plan, which calls for developing U.S. 29 along existing roads by outfitting those routes for high-volume traffic and building bypasses, could easily cost billions of dollars, according to state highway engineer David Coyne.

But re-designating portions of state Route 32, Route 26, Route 97 and Route 140 as part of U.S. 29 would not make those routes eligible to receive federal funding, Porcari said in his Feb. 20 letter.

Zimmer independently sent letters to numerous federal and state officials about his vision for the U.S. highway project. Normally, the three commissioners - Zimmer and fellow Republicans Julia Walsh Gouge and Dean L. Minnich - would meet as a board and come to a consensus before sending out a joint letter on an issue of concern, Gouge and Minnich have said.

"If we don't put in our priorities as a group, as a board of commissioners, basically they're not going to even be looked at," Gouge said. "...We need to make sure we're all in agreement before anything happens."

Zimmer said he sent an information packet and cover letter on behalf of a task force he helped form to about 50 federal officials and agencies, including U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin and Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings.

When Gouge and Zimmer met with Mikulski in Washington on Monday, they briefly discussed Carroll's transportation projects, according to Mikulski's spokeswoman.

Realizing the obstacles such a highway project would face, Zimmer said he was not trying to lobby for federal funds.

"We aren't expecting the red carpet treatment just because we sent somebody a letter," he said. "We realize there's a good deal more to look into."

Zimmer said Steve Horn, the county planning director, told the project task force that Route 32 in South Carroll would not be widened until additional lanes are completed on Route 32 in Howard County.

When Zimmer unveiled his U.S. 29 proposal in January, some county officials said federal highway funds could expedite projects the state has not funded along the Route 32 corridor and around Taneytown. 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 have said.

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. Reconstruction on this project is set to begin this summer.

Currently, less than a mile of U.S. highway - Interstate 70 in Mount Airy - runs through Carroll County.

Bringing in more industrial development is dependent on improving Carroll's limited network of roads, growth consultant Uri P. Avin recently stressed in a report for the county's Economic Development Commission.

"There's a good deal of frustration with the pace of moving projects from an idea to an actual project on the ground," Zimmer said of highway improvements. "Maybe we'll be able to break through somehow."

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