'Bypass' is now the magic word for Hampstead

January 04, 2009|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Rob Gonzalez seldom gets caught in the gridlock that snarls Route 30 in Hampstead each weekday morning - neither would you if you got to work at 3:30 a.m.

But rush hour is another matter.

"It can take 20 minutes to go three miles; you literally have to plan for that," said Gonzalez, owner of Snickerdoodles, a bakery-cafe on Route 30. During rush hour, he and other local residents all but avoid the road frequented by ex-Marylanders who now live as far as 15 miles to the north in Hanover, Pa., but still work and do business here.

In the morning, traffic begins to swell at about 4:30. In the evening, it pays to get out there before 4 p.m., unless you want to endure a logjam that stretches up to five miles, persists for hours, and moves slower than a Segway.

But relief is on its way. The $82 million Hampstead Bypass, a road first conceived more than 40 years ago, is to open in the spring.

The State Highway Administration began constructing the snaking, 4.5-mile road west of Route 30 two years ago. With a 55 mph speed limit, three roundabouts to control flow and no traffic signals, the bypass is expected to absorb about two-thirds of the rush-hour traffic along the Hampstead portion of Route 30.

Some Carroll County residents say they thought the bypass would never be built. And despite news that the bypass will open six months behind schedule, enthusiasm about the road abounds.

"People are very, very happy to see the bypass coming," said county Commissioner Julia W. Gouge. A former Hampstead mayor, she says that talk of a bypass dates to the 1940s. "The traffic has put a hurting on businesses in town, because sometimes you have to wait five to 10 minutes for traffic to clear to get across the street."

For decades, politicians in the Republican-dominated county pressed state officials to build the road. But it was not until 2003, when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became Maryland's first Republican governor since 1969, that the effort gained traction.

"That's an area of the state that has felt neglected for many years, so when we won, it made sense that they thought they might get a break," Ehrlich said. "In my visits through towns there, I saw that you didn't have to be a traffic engineer to see [the problems]."

The road is also expected to restore some small-town charm to an area that has drawn a steady stream of developers and newcomers since the 1980s because of its, well, small-town charm. Hampstead officials plan to revitalize the portion of Route 30 called Main Street that runs through the center of town with sidewalks, a newly paved street, benches and other amenities.

That will recall the days when Hampstead was a tranquil town and Main Street was the primary shopping district - before residents from Baltimore and its outskirts flocked to Carroll County in search of a break from the city.

"In the mid-1980s, [developers] provided everyone with what they were looking for - a small house on a sizable piece of land in a quaint, little town," said Hampstead Councilman Wayne H. Thomas. The influx of newcomers helped transform the small community, which now has supermarkets, pizza parlors, dance studios and fitness centers.

"This used to be a hokey little place," said Ruth Leaf of nearby Reisterstown while dining at Snickerdoodles, "but not anymore."

Then some residents moved north to Pennsylvania, looking for cheaper houses and lower taxes, while keeping their Maryland jobs. The result: traffic woes that Carroll officials anticipated in the 1960s when "bypass" became a buzzword.

"I saw the first plans for a Hampstead bypass on the books in 1967," said Thomas, noting that initial plans called for a bypass for both Hampstead and Manchester, just to the north. "But in the early to mid-1970s, Manchester decided that it didn't want the bypass."

Manchester ultimately cleared the way for a housing development called Whispering Valley along the bypass route. It later drew up plans for a bypass east of Route 30, but those plans are still on the books.

Hampstead officials refused to give up.

State Sen. Larry E. Haines drove then-Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan out to Route 30 in Hampstead during rush hour to see the congestion up close. Thomas, meanwhile, petitioned for the road so often in Annapolis that legislators took to calling him "Mr. Bypass."

"My argument has been that Carroll County, for 40 years, didn't get their fair share of highway funding," Haines said. "I was here when we opened Route 140 around Westminster. There were people who said that we were building a road to nowhere, but in those days we built far in advance of the need. Now, we're building behind the need."

The northernmost point of the Hampstead Bypass merges onto Route 30 about two miles south of Manchester. So while Hampstead residents will enjoy a smoother ride through town in the spring, Manchester residents will experience gridlock as usual.

Yet the gridlock doesn't seem to faze Tina Kennedy. Each day she gussies up the storefront at Main Street Florist in Manchester, making sure that the colorful silk flower display is set just right and that the window sign, "Don't Just Drive By, Stop In," is clearly visible by motorists slowed by the Route 30 traffic.

"That's why everything's sitting out here - so they can have something to look at," said Kennedy. "A lot of merchants I know in Hampstead are upset because people aren't going to see their businesses anymore. I'm not so upset because they're still going to be here during rush hour looking at my business."

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