Public hits brakes on traffic study

Some in Columbia say 30-year forecast for Town Center is overreaching

October 14, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

A new study that maps out traffic growth for downtown Columbia during the next three decades is flawed and may need to be re-examined because it doesn't consider the number of people traveling into Town Center in the future, some residents say.

Audience members both praised and challenged the assumptions and provisions of that study Thursday night at the second of six forums to discuss Town Center's future. "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," was released by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman last month.

"You have to assume there's going to be growth outside of Columbia, and some of those people are going to want to come to downtown," said Alex Hekimian, an Oakland Mills resident and recently retired transportation planner in the Montgomery County Planning Department. "When you ignore it, you underestimate the traffic in downtown Columbia and you also underestimate the number of transportation projects that would be needed to mitigate it."

Hekimian, who also serves as president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, said the plan to make Columbia more vibrant requires attracting people to the city.

"This runs counter to that goal," he said. "There's a lot of skepticism to this study. I think they're going to have to go back to the drawing board or it's going to be a lightning rod for criticism of the vision."

Others questioned the value of projecting out to the year 2037.

But a spokesman for the county said all the numbers would be revisited.

"We recognize that some of the assumptions may work out for us, and some may wash out," said Mark DeLuca, chief of the traffic engineering division for Howard County's Department of Public Works. "We intend to do this study again in five years. When you're projecting 30 years out, any assumption you make could be compounded and magnified out."

The study, done by Sabra, Wang & Associates Inc., a firm that also works with Baltimore City, provides traffic projections for 2014 and 2037.

Those for 2014 are based on an additional 1,125 residential units, 1.1 million square feet of office space, 420,000 square feet of retail space, 274,000 square feet of medical and hospital space and 125 additional hotel rooms.

Eventually, the study says, roadway extensions would be needed at Wincopin Circle, Hickory Ridge Road, Corporate Boulevard and South Entrance Road.

Additional traffic also would require intersection improvements such as added turn lanes at Governor Warfield Parkway, Wincopin Circle, Broken Land Parkway, Hickory Ridge Road and Symphony Woods.

The study calls for interchange improvements along U.S. 29 and South Entrance Road, and U.S. 29 and Route 175. It also recommends the creation of a high-tech countywide transportation management center to monitor and manage traffic operations and incidents.

The intersection of Little Patuxent Parkway at Broken Land Parkway cannot be fixed without major roadway widening or grade separation, according to the study.

Steve Meskin, a resident of Vantage Point Road, came to the meeting unhappy about the proposed extension of Wincopin Circle, which a map in the study shows as intersecting at his street.

"I wanted to try to put the nail in the coffin of this extension," he said. "I walk along Vantage Point Road, and we just don't see any place for a new road to come in here and intersect. I haven't told my neighbors about this. I'm afraid there would be a march on [the planning and zoning office] and the county if I did."

Hal Kassoff, a longtime Columbia resident and the former head of the State Highway Administration, praised the quality of traffic flow in the county.

"How many areas that have grown as much as Howard County has in the past 25 to 30 years have had as few problems?" he asked.

But Kassoff also was concerned that a growth factor had not been built into at least the afternoon numbers for peak traffic flow.

The study projects an additional 3,300 peak hour vehicle trips in the morning and 4,500 new peak hour trips in the afternoon by 2014.

Paul Silberman, senior traffic engineer with Sabra, Wang & Associates, said traffic patterns are expected to get more local, so that the impact of other traffic will lessen rather than grow.

The traffic study is a key part of the county's framework report for downtown. That framework says new development should form well-defined districts within downtown, create a pedestrian-friendly environment and establish height limits appropriate to each district's character. It also advocates building parking garages to reduce or eliminate surface parking lots.

General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based company that controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, will hold at least a half-dozen meetings of its own on the vision for downtown. Those meeting dates have not been announced.

General Growth's meetings will make recommendations on residence and business locations and how urban planning elements such as streetscapes and public art would be worked into the plan, company officials have said.

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