$500,000 set aside for trails, paths


Every time Howard County residents crank their car engines to get to the local park-and-ride lot, shopping center or train station, Howard County and state transportation officials would like them to think about pedaling or hoofing it instead.

And it's more than just talk: They're going to put $500,000 into curbing air pollution by making it easier for county residents to bike or walk short distances instead of drive.

County officials got confirmation Thursday that they have won a $402,000 state clean-air grant. Coupled with a 20 percent county contribution of about $100,000 -- which the county has available -- the money will help pave shoulders, pathways and sidewalks to connect existing ones. The money also will finance studies on how successful the pilot program is.

"Right now we're suggesting that maybe even a portion of the time, they could walk or even use a bike," said Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning for the county Department of Planning & Zoning.

"From an air-quality standpoint, a significant portion of the pollution that's generated by cars is what's known as the cold start," Mr. Balser said. Even though riding a bus to work most of the way helps cut air pollution, he said, "if a person drives a half-mile from their home to the park-and-ride lot . . . they're still creating that cold start."

To promote more walking and pedaling, Mr. Balser said the county will fill gaps between areas with pathways, sidewalks and paved shoulders. Individual projects have yet to be chosen, but the county is full of places where the money could help.

One example is the park-and-ride lot at Broken Land Parkway and Route 32 -- the county's busiest. The surrounding Columbia neighborhoods are laced with pathways and most roads are wide, with generous shoulders for bicyclists.

But when a pedestrian or bicyclist gets close to the lot, he said, the roads narrow and the paths end.

"There are no good pedestrian or bicycle connections from either direction, north or south," he said.

The state money is part of the new Maryland Transportation Emission Reduction Pilot Program, which is aimed at reducing air pollution from vehicles. That is a particular problem in the Baltimore area, where the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ordered an aggressive program to reduce air emissions.

"Anytime you can cut down on the use of cars for short runs, that's wonderful," said Ed Cahill, an avid bicyclist and member of the Baltimore Bicycling Club.

But getting people out of their cars will require a lot more than just providing good shoulders or pathways, he said.

"When I think about riding my bike from home to a local shopping center, what comes to mind is that I have to cross major intersections. And when I get there, I have to think about locking my bike up," Mr. Cahill said.

Transportation officials are likely to install bike racks or lockers at some popular destinations, Mr. Balser said. He also cited Mr. Cahill's Ellicott City neighborhood as a place in need of improved access for bike riders and pedestrians.

"Along Frederick Road, there's a pretty well-defined shoulder for most of its length," he said. But in a few places, particularly where the road crosses streams, the road narrows and the shoulder disappears. "With improvement to those short gaps, we could have a connection from a number of the communities to shopping areas, to the county office buildings, to the Miller Branch Library."

Mr. Balser said some of the money could also be used to pave "goat paths, where people have trodden down the grass, so you can tell there's a demand that's not being met."

Gary A. Ticknor, an Elkridge resident serving on a county panel looking at pedestrian and bicycle access, welcomed the money but said more is needed.

"If it's judiciously spent, you can do a lot with it, but it's not going to unlock the landlocked areas which are blocked by huge major arteries," he said. "When you look at the cost of one bridge over a major highway . . . you eat up the entire $500,000."

But the most important function of the state clean-air program is to find out what will reduce air pollution, said Liz Calinowski of the state transportation department.

Mr. Balser said that before and after improvements are made, county employees will count the number of bicycle or foot travelers along the chosen route and perhaps interview some of them to find out their destination and the length of their trip.

"There are a lot of good ideas out there to help improve air quality," Ms. Calinowski said, "but there's just not a whole lot of research out there."

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