The next big political battle in Howard County is likely to be fought over roads.
In a county that prides itself on efficient traffic flow, commutes are growing tedious and dangerous in some areas, and the state is warning local governments to expect little or no money for new local road projects.
Although congestion at the worst intersections is nothing like that in Northern Virginia, where an 18-mile rush-hour trip can last two hours or more, the clock is ticking in Howard.
A team of consultants hired to study the county's road network and help officials set priorities reported last month that virtually every intersection on Route 175 between Interstate 95 and Columbia fails to provide smooth rush-hour traffic.
On All Saints, Gorman and Marriottsville roads, on U.S. 29 and U.S. 40, on Routes 97, 108 and 216, the one- and two-minute delays are beginning to add up, and drivers resent it.
"Road manners are deteriorating," says James J. Smith, a resident of the Chase neighborhood who leaves home at 6 a.m. en route to Fort Meade so that he can avoid the traffic jams.
Although road warriors commuting to Washington would sneer at complaints about the 10 minutes Mr. Smith says has been added to his trip in the past seven years, he notes that he spends nearly twice as much time in traffic as he once did. "Tempers burn shorter. The fuse point, the frustration point comes quicker," he says.
Consultants found that from 1990 to 1992, 10 intersections in the county averaged 15 or more accidents a year. The State Highway Administration considers any intersection with 15 or more accidents during a 12-month period a high-accident location.
But the cost of upgrading roads is high, perhaps prohibitively so.
A cheap intersection, for example, costs roughly $12 million to rebuild, about the same as an expensive middle school. Schools and roads -- the county's two biggest financial headaches -- compete for dwindling dollars in the county's capital budget.
"Schools are very important for economic development," says County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "But business will not locate here if they can't get to and from here. We're going to have to have a balance somehow."
Finding that balance will not be easy.
More than half of the traffic passes through the county each day to get somewhere else. It contributes nothing economically to the county, yet it adds wear on the roads and aggravation for local drivers.
No state, federal funds
State and federal highway money has all but dried up for new local projects. The county may have to increase taxes and foot its road bill by itself. The alternative is to ask drivers to voluntarily spend more time each day commuting.
Most politicians find the latter strategy politically unpalatable, and Mr. Ecker says flatly that he would not support it.
Until now, the county has deferred most of its road projects in favor of more pressing demands such as schools and landfill cleanups.
But James M. Irvin, the public works director, has told the county executive that he will need $38 million next year alone for road, intersection and bridge improvements, $3 million more than a financial advisory committee has said the county should take on in new debt for all purposes, including schools. Part of the $38 million would be used to improve roads that usually would be built and maintained by the state.
The county already has paid to widen Route 32 from I-95 to U.S. 29 and to build new lanes on U.S. 29 from U.S. 40 to Route 175. It next plans to build an interchange for the state at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.
Altogether, the county will spend more than $50 million over the next five years to improve state roads. The county hopes to be reimbursed by the state for that work, but the prospects aren't good.
At a briefing for local officials Thursday, state Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead presented data showing that the state is spending $200 million on existing road projects in Howard County but has no money budgeted for projects that local officials consider to be their highest priorities.
"There are more [state] roads than that" that need fixing, Mr. Ecker says. "The state has to step up to the plate and help finance them."
Local officials may be left to deal with commuters' rising frustration over increased congestion.
"Some people think all roads should have free flow, with no delay at any intersection, which is an impossible task," says Carl Balser, head of the county's transportation division. "There is not enough cement [in the world] to make roads large enough to do that."
In an attempt to quantify the extent of Howard's commuter headaches, the county hired the Baltimore office of De Leuw, Cather and Co. to help decide which widening and rebuilding projects were essential.
After studying a two-year period, from 1990 to 1992, the consultants found that during rush hour, 19 of 28 intersections were considered to have "failed" -- their term for long delays and stop-and-go driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ten of 31 rush-hour commuter routes studied during the same period were on the verge of failure, the consultants said.
Since that information was compiled, the county has been rezoned to allow more development and faster growth. The consultants restudied some of the failed routes in August and found Howard's worst rush-hour headaches to be:
* U.S. 1 from Route 175 to Whiskey Bottom Road: Four of eight intersections fail, with rush-hour delays of up to three minutes or more.
* Route 175 from U.S. 29 to U.S. 1: Four of eight intersections fail, with delays of up to three minutes.
* U.S. 40 from St. John's Lane to Normandy Woods Drive: Three of six intersections fail, with delays of up to two minutes or more.
* U.S. 29 from Route 32 to the Montgomery County line: Two of three intersections fail, with delays of two minutes or more.
* Little Patuxent Parkway from Harpers Farm Road to Governor Warfield Parkway: Three of eight intersections fail, with delays of up to two minutes or more.
Faced with such problems, local officials are preparing for a new round of public hearings in the next 18 months on road conditions and what should be done about them.
In the past, road hearings have been a minefield for politicians, the most volatile of any public hearings held by local government. People arrive angry and leave angry. Some are upset about delays in solving their traffic problems; others are infuriated about plans to route traffic through their neighborhoods.
This time, Mr. Balser hopes, things will be different. The consultants have created a program that officials say should make the discussions less emotional.
They have devised a set of 18 criteria, ranging from "social, economic and environmental concerns" to "traffic volumes, congestion and accidents" to help decide which road projects should be undertaken.
They came up with 28 expensive projects and 44 lower-cost, safety-related projects and labeled them high, medium or low priority.