Bridge Columbia, education, nonprofit supporters, request funding at budget hearing

Representatives from the school system, library, community college and nonprofits are often familiar faces at County Executive Ken Ulman's annual budget hearings.

But this year, there were some new faces in the crowd of roughly 50 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Slightly less than a dozen of the attendees came out March 14 to request funding for Bridge Columbia, a proposal to replace the existing footbridge that runs across Route 29, connecting downtown Columbia to Oakland Mills, with a larger bridge that would accommodate buses, as well as bikers and pedestrians.

"It could end up being the iconic Howard County structure that's visible to all as they drive down 29," Oakland Mills Village Board chairwoman Abby Hendrix said, noting that the current footbridge "is deplorable and unsafe."

She said the supporters are asking for $200,000 to $300,000 in the county's capital budget to fund an engineering and environmental study, which would allow the county to apply for state and federal grant money for the project.

"This project could provide not only a signature architectural statement but also help achieve county priorities of improving connectivity and offering more sustainable transportation choices," Oakland Mills resident Alex Hekimian said.

Hekimian, who serves on the Columbia Association Board, said the funding request is timely given the federal transportation reauthorization legislation that would fund road, bridge and mass transit projects across the country. The bill passed the U.S. Senate this week.

John Slater, of Columbia, said there is a potential that 80 percent of the entire project could be funded through federal grants and thus the cost to the county is "not a lot of money in today's economy."

The county is responsible for the current footbridge, which Slater called "a security risk" and "a visual eyesore."

"The county must deal with this bridge one way or another," he said. "Why not deal with it in the right way, in a sustainable way?"

Slater added: "I'm convinced this transit bridge will help revitalize Oakland Mills."

After all but one of the Bridge Columbia supporters testified, Ulman shared his thoughts on the proposal.

"I'm in complete 100 percent agreement on a number of things," he said. "One is the condition of the current bridge, couldn't agree more."

Ulman said he also agrees the proposed bridge would provide an "iconic look," foster bikeability and walkability from downtown to Oakland Mills and "have a positive spillover effect in other villages."

However, Ulman said he is concerned about the transit aspect of the plan "because that does increase the cost" and would need to be convinced the bridge would increase bus ridership. After the hearing, he explained that building a bridge to support buses would cost millions more than replacing or renovating the footbridge and would involve creating road connections.

Ulman also told the testifiers he is "skeptical" about the ability to fund the construction of the bridge through grant money.

"I would do cartwheels in every part of this room if we acquired funds to pay the balance," he said.

While Ulman said he is "intrigued" by the proposal and that the $200,000 to $300,000 funding request is "reasonable," he is undecided about whether or not to include Bridge Columbia in his capital budget.

Columbia resident Christopher Tsien, who serves as the president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County and is on CA's transportation task force, testified after Ulman spoke about the proposal and thus had the opportunity to address some of his concerns.

"We need a bridge that accommodates not only active transportation but also mass transportation," Tsien said. "Because it's a mistake to think of transportation as only 'I have to get from here to there in one trip' ... I can use several modalities to get to one place."

He added: "Having transit on a bridge puts eyes on the bridge ... the (current) bridge is an ugly steel cage fit for a TV wrestling show."

Other requests

Diane Butler, president of St. John's Community Association, was one of the new faces at the hearing. She testified to the dated infrastructure in the Dunloggin neighborhood and requested county aide for community storm water upgrades.

Butler also requested something to be done to the "overgrown, grassy area" that is called Dunloggin Park, located next to the middle school. She said the vegetation has interfered with electrical wires and caused power issues for residents.

"The land has been left with no amenities, no maintenance," Butler said. "No facilities have ever been built there. ... The St. John's community would like this area cleaned up and a proper park installed on this eye sore."

Ulman said he would work with Butler and the community to ensure something was done to revitalize the land.

Despite the new faces, the much of the testimony came from regular budget stakeholders: Superintendent Sydney Cousin and the school board chairwoman; Howard County Library President and CEO Valerie Gross and a representative from the library's fundraising group; Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington and the chairwoman of the college's Board of Trustees; and nonprofit representatives from the Community Action Council and FIRN (Foreign Born Information and Referral Network).

HCC is requesting a 9 percent increase — from $25.95 million to $28.3 million — to its funding, mostly to pay for costs associated with opening the college's new health sciences building, Hetherington said. She also noted during her testimony that the college is planning to raise tuition next year by $4 per credit.

Howard County Library requested $17.1 million, a 4.9 percent increase from the $16.3 million it received last year. The increase accounts for full-year costs of staffing the new Miller Branch Library and inflationary costs.

FIRN, which has assisted the county's foreign-born residents for the past 30 years, is also seeking a funding increase to add more staff. The nonprofit was given $200,000 last year and is requesting $369,000 this year, an increase of 84.5 percent.

"As the population of foreign-born increases, so too must FIRN," said Jill Marie Bussey, vice president of FIRN's Board of Directors.

The CAC, which was given $699,000 last year, is requesting a 21.6 percent increase to $850,000 this year to extend the hours of the Howard County Food Bank into the evenings and weekends and to purchase more food for the bank.

Ulman has to submit his capital budget to the County Council by April 1 and his operating budget by April 21. The council will then hold their own set of hearings and work sessions before voting on the budgets.

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