Larry Hogan's $61.5 million 'nowhere' highway project gets underway in western Maryland

Not much happens at the intersection of U.S. Route 40 Alternate and U.S. Route 219 in Grantsville, so I asked the attendant at the Garrett County refuse and recycling station down the road what all the earthmoving was about. “Oh,” he said, “that’s for the roundabout.”

The roundabout? You mean a traffic roundabout?

“Yup.”

A traffic roundabout near the intersection where not much happens? Where there never seems to be anything you could call traffic? Someone at the county roads office must have made a mistake.

Though I live in Baltimore, a three-hour drive from that spot in western Maryland, I have been through the great small town of Grantsville dozens of times over the last 25 years, mostly on fishing trips to the Casselman River, with stops at the Hill Top Fruit Market and the Shop N Save. I get off Interstate 68, turn north on 219 (or Chestnut Ridge Road) and stop at the traffic light at Route 40 Alternate. The area is never congested. I have never sat through more than one change of the light. That’s why I scratched my head at the idea of a traffic circle there.

I was a bit perplexed at the scope of the excavation, too. It seemed to be for something much bigger than a single roundabout. I went from perplexed to stunned when I saw the specifications and price tag for the 1.4-mile project: $61.5 million. You could repave a lot of potholed streets in the busy Baltimore metropolitan area with that kind of dough.

Where, I wondered, would Garrett County get $61.5 million, and for such a dubious project?

Then it hit me: This must be Larry “Road Warrior” Hogan money.

I recalled a quote that appeared in the pages of The Baltimore Sun: “The highway from nowhere through nowhere to nowhere." That’s what Dru Schmidt-Perkins called this project near Grantsville. At the time, she was executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland, and she was criticizing how the governor intended to spend state money on 219 and other roads after he killed the Red Line in Baltimore.

In 2015, just a couple of months after Hogan had sent the Maryland National Guard into West Baltimore to quell the April unrest, he spiked the Red Line light rail project — wasting 10 years and millions of dollars in planning and design, and saying no thanks to more than $900 million in federal transportation funds. At the same time, Hogan pledged to put $2 billion into suburban and rural roads, making clear that he had no intention to expand mass transit in Baltimore while rewarding areas of the state that had supported his election in 2014.

One of the road projects was the realignment of Route 219 north of Interstate 68. That area, to the east of downtown Grantsville, is not exactly “nowhere.” There are gas stations, fast food, a shopping center with a Subway and an excellent hardware store. But, after that, north of Route 40, it looks like it an ordinary rural road.

Now, this is politics. Elections have consequences. Larry Hogan might be totally 20th century in his transportation priorities, but I understand political realities and partisan favors. What I don’t understand is the Route 219 Realignment project.

It calls for creating a new parallel road, a bypass essentially, though the present road seems fine as is. The area does not appear to need one roundabout, never mind the two listed in plans.

What we have here is a small piece of a grander project to widen Route 219 to move traffic more expeditiously between Interstate 68 and Somerset, Pa. and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Apparently some movers and shakers, including U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, have long thought this was an important goal, part of an “Appalachian Development Highway System.” An Oct. 13 press release from Hogan’s office stated: “This $61.5 million project has been a top Garrett County transportation priority for decades...”

A “priority for decades”? If the realignment of this rural road was such a pressing matter, a previous administration in Annapolis would have found money for it years ago. Is this project really a priority or just a politician’s gift to supporters who see economic progress in bigger, faster roads? Pardon me for being skeptical of large, new road projects through the rural countryside, especially when there’s a huge need for improved infrastructure in heavily populated metropolitan areas.

“We are proud to be delivering this important project,” Hogan said in the release. “Today is another example that we have been doing exactly what we said we would do.”

No argument there. Hogan is a road warrior. He promised asphalt. He’s delivering it. But this is the same man who, in killing the Red Line, said, “We are opposed to wasteful boondoggles,” then appears to have funded a beauty in Garrett County.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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