Maryland's transportation chief told Howard County's elected officials last night that the best way to deal with traffic congestion is to improve road networks already in place rather than build new ones.
"We are looking at investments already in place," Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead said. "We want to put good money after good money.
"I am very concerned about congestion and the impact it is having on our quality of life," he said. "We are taking major steps to address it."
The problem for Howard officials is that the major steps cited by Mr. Winstead are all outside the county -- a faster route across the Eastern Shore to the beach and improvements to Interstate 270 and U.S. 50.
Howard officials want the same kind of attention paid to the relocation and rebuilding of Route 216 from U.S. 29 to Interstate 95 and the widening of Route 32 from Clarksville to Interstate 70.
"The key in Howard County is whether we and the state are going to be forward-thinking or are we going to wait until we reach the critical stage" before funding and building the two cross-county thoroughfares, County Councilman Darrel Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, said after the briefing.
Unless the state and the county go forward with those projects, "the critical stage will occur and we'll be forced to do something," Mr. Drown said. "We need to handle that situation real soon. It's going to be tough."
Mr. Drown, who is usually vehemently opposed to tax increases, thinks it may be time for the state to increase the gasoline sales tax but only if that money is going to be spent on roads.
He and Howard Del. Robert H. Kittleman, minority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, said too much of the gas tax is going to mass transit projects.
"Each year, the number of mass transit riders goes down and the amount of money going into mass transit goes up," said Mr. Kittleman, a West Friendship Republican. "Eventually, all the money will go to mass transit but nobody will be riding."
Although Howard officials privately expressed dissatisfaction, everything they said in public was positive.
"I show up in 23 counties, but nowhere in the state do we work better with elected officials than in Howard County," said Hal Kassoff, the state highway administrator. "The staff in Howard County is A-1 to do business with."
The state is spending $55 million to build a 2.4 mile, four-lane freeway from Pindell School Road to Route 108, and $115 million to build a multilane stretch of Route 100 from I-95 to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Mr. Kassoff said.