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Howard County government lays out transportation priorities vying for state funding

Howard County government lays out transportation priorities vying for state funding
Plans to dualize Route 32 ranked high on the administration's priority list for transportation projects. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Widening northbound Route 29 to three main lanes, dualizing Route 32 and improving the intersection at Kit Kat Road ranked high among Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's top priorities for state funding this year, according to a letter the administration sent to the state on Tuesday.

Like other jurisdictions, the county outlines its priorities in a letter to the Maryland Department of Transportation for consideration in the state's six-year capital budget for transportation projects.

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New state recommendations called for clearer prioritization of projects in the letter, increased public input and endorsements from the Howard County Delegation and the County Council; both legislative bodies signed the letter despite reservations.

Some delegation and council members said it was unclear how the administration ranked projects and how a public survey on transportation priorities informed the county's priorities, signalling the need to create a more clearly defined prioritization method next year.

"The train has left," said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, delegation chairwoman. "I would like to walk away … being able to explain this to constituents. I don't feel like we're at that point."

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball expressed similar reservations, citing state funds are heavily focused on road projects and should be more focused on public transit.

"With much debate on the projects and some members expressing their dissent, the Council concluded that the system is flawed in determining what the main priorities are," said Ball.

This was the first year the state recommended the county seek endorsement from the delegation and the council, said Phil Nichols, a special assistant to the county executive. Projects were prioritized based on sessions with the Department of Public Works, the Department of Planning and Zoning, the Office of Transportation and the administration.

"This has been a collaborative effort between a lot of agencies … with differing perspectives," said Nichols.

A survey by the administration in early March to gauge public response drew responses from more than 1,400 respondents and 300 individual written comments, said Clive Graham, administrator of the county's Office of Transportation.

Although response rates were encouraging, the survey was not scientific and did not use a random sample. Graham said the administration did not consider a scientific survey due to the higher costs for the tool and a limited timeframe available ahead of the April 1 deadline to submit the letter.

"We were interested in opinion as a guide as opposed to hard and fast numbers," said Graham, adding the deadline to submit the letter is flexible.

Del. Eric Ebersole, who represents District 12, said he was concerned by the "socioeconomic bias" inherent in the survey, which was delivered online. The survey did not ask respondents to identify ZIP codes, although the county did screen IP addresses to weed out repeat respondents, said Graham.

Although the survey was used to shift some priorities, overall, the public's priorities did not fully align with the county's, said Del. Frank Turner, who represents District 13.

"One of the problems I have when I look at this survey is that their priorities are different from our priorities. That to me is somewhat of a problem. We ought to have some sort of correlation," said Turner.

Also on the list of the top five priorities for capital and construction projects are buses to replace aging vehicles and expanding service on popular routes; and replacing the Route 100/Route 103 interchange.

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Widening northbound Route 29 from the Middle Patuxent River to Seneca Drive also ranked high on a priority list for design and engineering projects. The administration also seeks state support to improve access points to Gateway Drive, improve Interstate 70 by widening lanes and upgrading the Marriottsville Road interchange and improving pedestrian and bike access through public safety improvements.

Going forward, members of the delegation and the Council encouraged the administration to provide more information about how projects were ranked and continue to include both bodies in discussions. Delegation and council members also recommended including more inclusive methods to engage the public in setting priorities.

"I do want to get to a place where I have a better understanding… and can convey to others how these decisions ultimately get made," said state Sen. Guy Guzzone, who supported the overall letter.

Concerns about prioritization are emblematic of a "more contentious state argument" about how projects are done throughout the state, said state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, who represents District 12.

Del. Trent Kittleman, who represents District 9A, said the process is inherently subjective, making it difficult to justify priorities based on numerical values.

Few of the priorities reflect multi-model transportation, said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, citing the need for the letter to reflect "a county in transition."

The delegation signed the letter last week and the council signed the letter on Monday. The letter is due on a soft deadline of April 1, said Nichols.

"If everyone squaked loud enough, then it got changed," said Del. Bob Flanagan, who represents District 9B. "We ought to have some sort of a working process."

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