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Mapping out the county's transportation needs, options [Commentary]

Right before our eyes, Downtown Columbia is undergoing a renaissance, transforming the Town Center into a vital, urban area where people can live, work and play.

Our collective goal, as outlined in the Downtown Columbia Plan, will be achieved by increasing “the number of people living downtown and by adding more residences, shops and recreational and cultural amenities in Downtown Columbia, while also making downtown more attractive and easier for pedestrians to navigate.”

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Yes, this increase creates more transportation activity, but this is where the county’s multimodal strategy comes in by providing and supporting transportation options for all members of our community, whether they want to drive, bike, walk or take a bus.

Our transportation planning for the downtown has been, and continues to be, ongoing and rigorous. The results should be recognizable to those living, working in, or visiting downtown. Current examples include: new turn lanes added to the Governor Warfield and Little Patuxent parkways intersection; new roads on the west side of the mall (Town Center Avenue, Gramercy Place); a parking garage south of the new Medstar Building, which also provides concert parking for Merriweather Post Pavilion; extension of Hickory Ridge Road east of Broken Land Parkway; the downtown trail from Howard County General Hospital to the Lakefront and, via the soon to be refurbished pedestrian bridge, to Oakland Mills; and the new bike-share system.

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Key, however, is that the county is managing new development by ensuring that transportation improvements are implemented concurrent with new development – and do not lag behind. We have already used 18 traffic studies to assist in managing downtown development.

Other road, bicycle, pedestrian, transit and parking improvements are in the works. These will be implemented over time to meet demand coming from new development, and are being accelerated with mechanisms such as tax increment financing. Several of these projects are being designed not just to move cars, but to make walking and bicycling around downtown convenient, interesting and enjoyable. These options will encourage people to walk and bike rather than drive, which will reduce trips by motor vehicles. An upcoming Transportation Demand Management Plan will include other strategies to reduce car trips, ultimately lessening the need for expensive road projects.

Under County Executive Allan Kittleman’s direction, the county’s multimodal approach to transportation isn’t just limited to Columbia. We’ve also taken several steps to improve our transportation infrastructure throughout Howard County.

We began implementing a countywide Bicycle Master Plan in 2016; our new Transit Development Plan is recommending more efficient and effective bus routes and services for people with disabilities; we are updating our countywide Pedestrian Master Plan; we are reviewing the county’s road Design Manual to address multiple transportation modes appropriate to the travel context; and we are conducting a safety evaluation of Route 1. In developing these plans and studies, the county works closely with multiple state and regional agencies as well as local stakeholders.

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We are working hard to increase opportunities in those parts of the county where multimodal options are not as available or as safe as we would like them to be, though in some locations, design choices are limited and/or expensive retrofits are needed.

Howard County benefits from a decades-long legacy of continuous, strong transportation planning that has given us a network that, overall, functions very well. New and evolving transportation technologies such as ride-hailing services (Uber and Lyft), car sharing, self-driving vehicles, and mobile navigation applications such as Waze are creating a dynamic and challenging new environment.

We will continue to plan, focusing on improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of transportation to serve all users, both in Columbia and in all of Howard County.

Clive Graham is the administrator for the Howard County Office of Transportation.

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