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Friends of Bridge Columbia, Howard council members weigh in on project's funding

Friends of Bridge Columbia, Howard council members weigh in on project's funding
Friends of Bridge Columbia advocates Sandy Cederbaum, left, Bob Bartolo, Fred Gottemoeller and Karen Gray stand at the beginning of the Village of Oakland Mill's path to the current bridge across U.S. Route 20, connecting East and West Columbia. (Staff photo by Andrew Michaels)

Almost four years after the Bridge Columbia project was mentioned to the Howard County Council, the idea has yet to become a reality as community and government representatives continue to tackle an issue on everyone's mind: funding.

Connecting Columbia's Town Center to the Village of Oakland Mills, the existing bridge across Route 29 is only accessible by foot or bicycle. The bridge has faced scrutiny for its lack of safety features, such as lighting and a vast tree cover, making some uncomfortable to cross it.

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As options are discussed at the federal, state and local levels, current plans are to enhance the existing bridge with better lighting, landscaping and safety improvements using a $500,000 investment from the Howard Hughes Corporation and $100,000 investment from the county.

Independent group Friends of Bridge Columbia has introduced ideas for a new bridge that would include vehicular traffic like electric buses, adding a "crown jewel" to Columbia while revitalizing Oakland Mills in the process. According to group member Fred Gottemoeller, funding a new bridge would cost from $10 to $15 million with multiple funding sources available.

Gottemoeller, who shared this information with federal, state and county government representatives and residents at last month's roundtable discussion, said he understood that it's possible for the Maryland Department of Transportation to contribute to the project's funding.

"What I got out of that was they've got $15 billion to spend over the next six years," Gottemoeller said. "Some of it could come to Howard County. Some of it should come to Howard County."

While the county approves expenditures for Columbia improvement projects, such as widening Route 29, Friends of Bridge Columbia member Karen Gray said the money should shift toward making a change.

"I think it was $35 million or $40 million, something like that, to [widen Route 29]," Gray said. "We just keep putting money into the way it is. We talk about keeping environmental and healthy lifestyles, but we're not putting the money there. This would make a huge difference. It would basically be this transit and bike and walking route that would connect the two sides of Columbia."

Former Rouse Company Transportation Planner Bob Bartolo, now a Friends of Bridge Columbia advocate, said if the Columbia Association were to donate the land, one big weight would be lifted off the county's shoulders.

"They have the land and can say, 'Our contribution is $2 million worth of land,'" Bartolo said.

Plus, Bartolo said, the $15 million required for the bridge would add up through the collection of several funds.

"Between state and federal and maybe the county, it's not like $15 million from one agency," he said. "There are sustainability funds, air pollution funds, bicycle funds; all these things can take a slice of it, so it's not any one agency putting all that money into it."

'Complicated' funding

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, representing West Columbia and Town Center, said arriving at a decision "is more complicated than can we fund or not fund the Bridge Columbia idea."

"When we come back to funding in today's world, we are at a point where we can't even fund necessary repairs because our federal transportation trust fun has been shot and our state fund has been beaten up," Sigaty said. "Realistically, I don't think that Bridge Columbia ends up on a high priority. As nice as an idea as it is, I wouldn't hold up for Bridge Columbia on a high priority status."

Representing East Columbia and Oakland Mills, Councilman Calvin Ball said County Executive Allan Kittleman didn't approve any funding this year, leaving the County Council dry.

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"The question is, what money is he putting in," Ball said. "From his perspective, money will be available, 'but I'm not putting any money in.' The County Council can't put in any more money because we can't add it; we can cut it."

Kittleman, however, said his administration is "actively working" with Friends of Bridge Columbia and other stakeholders to find appropriate funding.

"Everybody has known from the beginning that there was no way it can be done simply from the county funding," Kittleman said. "We've been looking to see what other avenues we have and Fred has been very helpful to try to figure out other ways we can get some funding ... Any criticism of us not putting money toward the project wasn't because we don't support the project or want to help with the project, but this project is not going to be built this current year. So, putting money into it this year would be taking money away from other projects that could be built this year."

With a capital budget this year of about $96 million, Kittleman said, it's important to focus on funding projects that can be completed within the next year.

"In the last two years, the previous county executive had a capital budget of $120 million," he said. "Our Spending Affordability Committee said you can't be borrowing that kind of money. … I inherited a $16 million deficit when I took office. Knowing that the bridge wasn't going to be built this year, to me, it didn't make sense to put money into a project that we don't have funding for through the state or federal government. Instead, we should focus that funding on other things we need at this moment."

Both Kittleman and Ball said they support the idea of a new bridge.

"I think things are going well as we continue to figure out ways to help get some funding to improve the bridge to be able to use more frequently and to be a better connector between Town Center and Oakland Mills," Kittleman said.

"I have been and continue to be a strong advocate for a viable connection from East to West Columbia," Ball said. "I think that investing in that bridge would be a very good investment for our community."

Moving forward, Gottemoeller remains optimistic.

"It's no question that it's competitive," he said. "Yes, there are other people out there who want the money, too, but we're Howard County. Why can't we compete for it just like anybody else? And there's every reason to believe that we could be successful."

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