As cars whizzed by, state and county officials gathered on Old Columbia Road Thursday morning to break ground on a project to widen three miles of northbound Route 29 between Route 32 and Route 175 from two to three lanes.
The $32.7 million project is the first in Howard County to be funded with money collected from the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act, also known as the gas tax, which was passed in 2013.
Construction on the project will officially begin in mid June and is expected to last two years. After expansion of the stretch of road from Seneca Drive to just south of Route 175, is complete, there are plans to widen another portion of Route 29 farther south, near the Montgomery County line.
The goal, according to Maryland Transportation Secretary Jim Smith, is to “break the bottleneck” of heavy traffic that backs up the highly traveled commuter route during rush hour.
“Every evening, rush hour turns this roadway into a parking lot filled with many Baltimore-area residents heading north,” Smith said. “Widening northbound U.S. 29 to three lanes to match the southbound side will help Howard County drivers, and those traveling through, to get to where they need to go more quickly and safely without losing so much time in bumper-to-bumper traffic.”
The project, which will also include a sound barrier along Old Columbia Road to shield nearby homes from noise, is one of two Howard County road-widening projects getting a start this year.
In Sykesville, an $8.75 million project to widen a one-mile stretch of Route 32 from Day Road to West Friendship Road is slated for a groundbreaking this summer. An additional lane, as well as acceleration and deceleration lanes will be added to the portion of road, which has been the site of several traffic fatalities in recent years, according to officials.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman called both projects “critical."
“It’s never popular to raise revenue in Annapolis, but we need to make progress if we’re going to create jobs with these projects,” he said. “More importantly, if we’re going to have a thriving economy and have the most competitive business climate of any state in the nation, which is our goal in Maryland.”
He added that widening Route 29 would help create the transportation infrastructure necessary to support an expanding downtown Columbia, which is in the midst of redevelopment.
Plans to widen Route 29 have been in the works since 1987, when the project was originally approved.
State Sen. Jim Robey, who served as Howard County executive from 1998 to 2006 before going to Annapolis, said he remembered working on the project during his time in Howard’s top office.
“Increasing to three lanes on 29 was probably at the top, if not the top,” of the county’s list of priorities, he said. “We should be here at 3:30, 4:00 in the afternoon, and we could serve drinks and hot dogs to the folks over there and make money. They would be sitting that still, it was that bad.”
State Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, who as chair of the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee helped to pass the gas tax, which caused a stir at the time, said new road projects would prove to the public “the need of raising taxes from time to time.
“I think when they see the increased safety and convenience, they will fully understand the need,” he said.
The two Howard County road-widening projects were among several others recently announced by the state. Also scheduled for groundbreaking this year are improvements to I-695 between Route 147 and Route 41 and improvements and a bridge replacement along I-695 at Leeds Avenue and the Route 1 interchange. Another $6.7 million in funds have been allotted to design projects at the I-795/Dolfield Road interchange and a road widening along Route 140 from Garrison View Road to the CSX bridge.
Altogether, Smith said, the projects are expected to create 1,600 jobs.