Ecker agrees to fund half of overpass SHA must pay for rest of $13 million project for Route 175, he says; 'I think he's flip-flopped'; State legislators say only county money should be used


Taking his fourth different position yet on a controversial road project in east Columbia, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said this week he will fund half of a $13 million overpass proposed for the clogged intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.

But he says he will do so only if the State Highway Administration picks up the other half of the project's cost -- a move that could postpone the project indefinitely.

Ecker's plan drew a sharp reaction yesterday from state legislators who represent Howard County. They said Ecker should keep the promise he made last year to build an overpass entirely with county dollars.

"I think he's flip-flopped all over the place on this," said state Del. Frank S. Turner, an east Columbia Democrat. "I mean, it's in, it's ++ out and now it's half-in."

For more than a year, east Columbia activists have been clamoring for an overpass they say was promised for the intersection, where drivers often sit through two long cycles of traffic lights during rush hour. From last year to 2010, traffic is expected to increase there by 87 percent.

In interviews yesterday, Ecker and his staff said they have done the best they can to propose different options. But they said the county has limited funds and future traffic levels at the intersection are unpredictable because of the opening of nearby Route 100.

"The financial reality is we have a lot of needs and not much money," said Ecker, adding that he never directly promised an overpass. "I don't think I've flip-flopped."

The clogged intersection certainly is not a county problem only. In fact, because Route 175 is a state road, the state has jurisdiction over the intersection.

In the past, though, relatively well-off Howard County has funded improvements to some non-county roads rather than wait for state or federal funding. Howard recently spent $3 million to widen U.S. 29 from Route 175 to Route 100, said Liz Kalinowski, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. She said Howard is one of the few counties in Maryland that funds such projects.

It is unclear when the overpass would be built under Ecker's latest proposal, first made public during a budget hearing Tuesday night.

But state legislators said the state likely would not suddenly find money for a project that isn't in its current budget.

And they said the state shouldn't have to, because it was Ecker who originally promised the overpass to Howard County citizens. Indeed, Ecker's current budget allocates $20.1 million in county funds over the next two years to build an overpass at the intersection.

"The county executive made a promise to that [east Columbia] community," said state Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Columbia Democrat. "And now he is hoping that we will help him keep his promise."

Added state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican: "The money has been in the [county] budget, and I would encourage the county executive to keep it there."

Ecker and state transportation officials said yesterday that Ecker has not submitted a written proposal detailing his plan.

Kalinowski, the state transportation spokeswoman, said the request would have to compete with others from around the state. "We literally have hundreds of millions of dollars of unmet construction needs every year," Kalinowski said.

In Howard County, the overpass proposal has had a circuitous history.

In 1995, Ecker allocated $9 million to building an overpass in his construction budget, according to county records.

That same year, the county Planning Board approved the enormous Columbia Crossing shopping center project at the intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway -- pointing to the $9 million planned overpass to help allay citizen concerns about increased traffic congestion.

Then, during budget sessions earlier this year, Ecker downgraded his overpass plans, replacing them with plans for a $4-million, untested and controversial "dispersed movement" interchange design that involved a complex series of timed traffic signals and new turning lanes.

Community activists and state legislators were suspicious of the design, so Ecker added money back into his budget for the more expensive overpass -- should one be recommended by state highway officials.

In September, state highway officials rejected the "dispersed movement" design as too risky for such a busy intersection. A month later, a task force made up of community activists and state and county engineers recommended construction of a $13-million, diamond-style overpass.

But the task force was split on when to build it. County activists favored starting immediately. The engineers favored waiting until the year 2000 when Route 100 is scheduled to fully open from Interstate 95 to U.S. 29. County and state engineers predicted that the new route will alleviate traffic along Route 175.

Ecker sided with the engineers, saying he probably would wait until Route 100 opened before spending any county money.

But this week, he announced he would be willing to spend $6.5 million as soon as 1998.

Such fluctuations are common in complicated road projects, when funding sources and traffic projections are uncertain, said Ron Lepson, the county's chief engineer.

"When you look at any kind of improvement of this magnitude," he said, "you have to look at all your options."

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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