Fort Meade expansion a boon, but increased traffic must be addressed

Growth at Fort Meade, the ever-expanding Army base across the border in Anne Arundel County, has been beneficial for Howard County. But as an article in today's issue makes clear — the second in a two-part series — unless something is done to improve access roads in the area, that rosy picture could have a very dark cloud.

Fort Meade is the largest single employer of Howard County residents, and that number is sure to rise in the next few years as the base's Cyber Command headquarters adds more and more people. The workforce at Fort Meade has leaped from 34,000 to 56,000 since 2005, and another 9,000 or so are expected to be added by 2015.

All those jobs, most of them well-paying, secure jobs, have been a boon to Howard County, which is now home to about 10,000 Fort Meade workers. They have helped Howard dodge the worst effects of the recession, most notably the high unemployment that has plagued much of the rest of the nation, and pumped in a steady supply of educated, capable new residents.

However, the other shoe might be about to drop in the form of worsening traffic in the southeast corner of the county.

In the past couple of years, the commute from Howard to and from Fort Meade, on such roads as routes 32 and 175, has grown steadily worse as increasing numbers of workers pour into and out of the base. Unless something is done soon, commuters might think they're in Montgomery County; Fairfax County, Va.; or some other jurisdiction where driving to work requires soothing meditation CDs.

Encouraging car pools and the like has siphoned off some of that traffic, but the ultimate answer is better roads. A section of Route 175 in Anne Arundel has been widened; but so far, that's been about the extent of it, and more relief does not appear to be coming any time soon. An estimated $1.3 billion in infrastructure improvement will be needed to accommodate the Fort Meade growth, according to the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee, but only $50 million has been allotted so far.

All of which points up the need for the federal and state governments to step up to the plate with some cash for road improvements.

We realize how easy that is to say and hard it is to accomplish; especially in a time of tight budgets and, moreover, a time when the state has an existing backlog of transportation projects and Howard County has other roads in other areas — Route 29 comes to mind, as does a portion of Route 32 near the Carroll County line — that could use some work as well.

But at the very least, the state has to stop tapping its transportation fund to cover deficits and state lawmakers have to seriously consider an increase in the gas tax or some other way to raise money for transportation spending. And our federal lawmakers need to press hard to make sure the federal government pays its share for transportation needs that, after all, they caused by shifting so many new jobs to our area.

Lawmakers and the public cannot have it both ways. They cannot enjoy the benefits of the jobs flowing into our area without paying the price to accommodate those workers.

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