Less than two years after opening the $289 million Route 100, Howard County is faced with major traffic jams on the highway -- and officials say it might cost $10 million or more to alleviate that congestion.
The daily morning and evening backups that began after the long-awaited opening in November 1998 surprised officials. The euphoria over being able to drive unimpeded on the new freeway from Ellicott City to Glen Burnie and beyond had barely begun when the congestion started.
Morning traffic headed south from Interstate 70 choked U.S. 29, and in the evening vehicles traveling north on U.S. 29 merged with those leaving Route 100 to create another major tie-up. Meanwhile, increased home construction westward along I-70 to Frederick is adding congestion at I-70 and U.S. 29.
Initially, the solution seemed obvious -- add a lane to each side of U.S. 29 from Route 100 north to I-70, a distance of about three miles.
County officials thought last year that the widening could be done in three or four years at minimal expense -- $2 million -- but plans are getting more complicated and expensive than expected.
"Simple things don't always work out that way," said Howard County Public Works Director James M. Irvin.
The problem is more extensive than it first appeared.
In addition to backups caused by people entering and leaving Route 100, a daily problem exists with evening commuters headed north on U.S. 29 and then west on I-70. Irvin said county officials are considering whether a westbound ramp onto I-70 should be added to the existing cloverleaf ramp to ease traffic.
The new lanes proposed for U.S. 29 would occupy what is now a grassy median, requiring a concrete barrier wall and thus excavation for storm-water drain pipes under the median pavement. If the widening increases noise levels more than 5 decibels, sound walls might be needed. That would raise the price another $1 million per mile on each side, according to David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.
The state has committed $705,000 for engineering, Buck said, but several issues remain unsettled, such as the total cost, the need for sound barriers, how much resurfacing is required and the limits of the project. After firm cost estimates are calculated, county and state officials must decide who will pay which share and how much money is available.
County Executive James N. Robey said the widening of U.S. 29 is a concern. "If you've ever sat in that traffic morning and night, it would be important to you. It's important to me," he said.
The county will have to wait to learn the total cost, and that could delay the project, but "even if it's $10 million, it still may be worth doing," Robey said.
Budget director Raymond S. Wacks said the county has about $2.6 million in road excise taxes that could be available to help with the project.