Roll-out of Howard County's bikeway at risk, advocates say

A little over a year ago, bicycling advocates celebrated a major victory when local lawmakers inked a master plan for a biking network and investment in bike infrastructure over the next 30 years.

But now, advocates say a 50-mile network, which is a part of the overall plan, is already hitting roadblocks.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is proposing $600,000 in county funds for the bikeway next year — a number advocates say is $2.4 million less than what is necessary to implement the route.

The bikeway, which includes around 19 miles of existing routes and 31.6 miles of new routes, is a network of bike and pedestrian routes that reach from Clarksville to Elkridge and Laurel to Ellicott City. The route, as proposed, is located within 1 mile of around half of county residences and public schools.

The funding mismatch has left some questioning the county's commitment to implementing the bicycle master plan, which residents and organizations like the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based nonprofit dedicated to health and wellness initiatives in Howard County, supported last year after years of planning and public input meetings.

Advocates hoped for an annual $3 million commitment for the bikeway from the county for the next three years in order to jump start short-term projects over the next decade.

Based on early estimates, the implementation of the master plan, which sets the vision for projects, is expected to cost $32 million over the next 30 years.

"Now we have a commitment to the citizens of this county, but we are not putting enough money to keep on pace with it," said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation. "At the rate of funding that's currently in the budget, the bike master plan won't be a reality for another 50 years."

Vernick said the funding level is especially disappointing because she said it was backed by more than 1,000 people who expressed support for the plan when it came before the Howard County Council last year, as well as 18 community groups.

"Howard County is falling behind," she said.

Through a spokesperson, Kittleman indicated his administration continues to demonstrate its commitment to a bike-friendly county by proposing and passing the master plan and adding a complete streets element, which ensures safe roads for pedestrians, motorists and other users.

He also indicated the county is spearheading the development of a six-year pilot bikeshare, set to launch this spring, and invested for the "dilapidated" Bridge Columbia, a bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists over Route 29.

The county is providing space for two bikeshare stations and $50,000 in funding for the program, according to a county spokesperson.

The roughly $700,000 project is made possible with $450,000 from the Horizon Foundation, $94,000 from the Howard Hughes Corp., $80,000 from Columbia Association, $72,000 from Howard County General Hospital and space from Howard Community College.

Kittleman will "continue to improve transportation options for the community, but such improvements need to be made in light of the current budget realities of many needs and limited resources," wrote Andy Barth, the county's press secretary, in a statement.

While advocates understand funding constraints, they say the county's budget is a reflection of its priorities. This year, the county's priority for the bikeway has fallen short, advocates said.

The budgetary clash is two-fold.

Advocates say the county cannot implement the master plan for biking on a project-by-project basis. Instead, the county should adopt a more holistic approach to implement the plan, which is vital to encouraging innovative and alternate modes of transportation that encourage healthier and more environmentally friendly habits, Vernick said.

"I think the things that [the county executive] has mentioned [as commitments] are shared community accomplishments," she said. "We're looking for a vision and leadership on this integrated transportation system and the money to bring that to reality."

The budget also includes $127,000 in expected grant funding for the initiative. But relying on funding from state and federal grants is too inconsistent to be considered a dedicated source of funding, said Jack Guarneri, president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, a coalition of cycling clubs and bike riders in Howard County.

"The end result is the county has to make a significant investment," he said.

As the administration tackles new transportation projects, the need to maintain old infrastructure, especially roads, continues to grow.

The county is facing a $56 million backlog, born over the last 10 years, for road resurfacing. For years, the need for road resurfacing has outpaced available funds, resulting in the backlog.

This year, Kittleman has included $4.5 million to chip away at the back-up, an appropriation that Jim Irvin, the director of the county's Department of Public Works, said is sufficient for the amount of repaving projects that can be completed in a year.

His department will spend about $10 million on road repaving this fiscal year.

Creating the bikeway is a long-term investment that can help tackle the county's growing needs, Guarneri said.

"We can't build our way out of congestion. We can't build our way out of traffic density in the county," Guarneri said. "And with more building, more housing and more people, we're going to need to find another way."

The Howard County Council will vote on Kittleman's $374 million budget request in late May after a series of work sessions. The council cannot directly increase Kittleman's budget.

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