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Respect for Route 1 [Editorial]

Howard County Times

Route 1 in Howard County would, without a doubt, provide an abundance of material for the comedian Rodney Dangerfield if he were alive today. Dangerfield, who died a dozen years ago, coined the phrase "I don't get no respect."

Route 1 was once the main East Coast thoroughfare from Maine to Florida before the arrival of the interstate highway system. Today portions of the 11-mile stretch of highway in the county are throwbacks to simpler times, showing their age, with threadbare shopping centers, motels, salvage yards and industrial parks.

A 2009 county report, simply titled the "Route 1 Manual," called parts of the corridor "visually chaotic, diverse and not very attractive." Sometimes truth hurts; there hasn't been much progress along the corridor.

The same report spells out a grander vision for the area between the Patapsco and Patuxent rivers, calling for new low-rise office and commercial buildings, housing around mixed-use retail centers and what the State Highway Administration terms "a finer-grained street network" to serve them, including bike trails and sidewalks that feed transit hubs.

Pockets of housing have been built, planned or approved and the county has taken steps for future schools and fire stations to serve the residents. But until there is a broader vision and commitment, some of the projects appear to be verdant islands plopped haphazardly near warehouses and intersections.

As reported in our story, it's understandable that some longtime residents feel overlooked, pointing to the recent fawning that has surrounded a revitalization plan for downtown Columbia.

Howard County isn't alone in the region in grappling with what to do in a landlocked transit corridor like Route 1. In neighboring Montgomery County, portions of Route 355, "The Pike" retail zone from the Capital Beltway to Gaithersburg, are reemerging with high-rise apartments and condominiums, retail centers, restaurants and town centers adjacent to stations on the Washington Metrorail system's Red Line.

Elected and appointed leaders acknowledge the challenges of redefining Route 1 are significant but they recognize the status quo isn't an option if the county wants to burnish an image as an employment center. While there are some tax breaks available as an incentive for businesses to expand and remodel, the county might want to consider the opposite: special tax districts where there are higher rates for several years to pay for amenities.

For too many years, well-meaning plans for improvements have unraveled and gone unrealized. Fresh approaches are needed to restore respect to Route 1.

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