Traffic congestion is growing faster than expected on Route 32 in western Howard County, but before going ahead with a project to widen the two-lane road, state highway officials are creating a panel of experts to try determining whether the project would attract more development.
The 10-member panel, composed primarily of real estate, economic development and planning experts, is to meet starting early next month to examine the effect on land along the highway in Howard County and in adjacent Carroll, Frederick and Montgomery counties, state officials said. No specific meeting date or list of participants is available, said Heather Murphy, project manager.
Opponents took little comfort from the news of the panel, though it is part of the state's Smart Growth program that seeks to prevent suburban sprawl. "If increasing the highways was an ideal solution [to congestion], Los Angeles would be a dream world," said a skeptical Deborah Izzi, president of the Citizens Alliance for Rural Preservation, a western county group fighting plans to spend $147 million to widen the highway from Interstate 70 south to Clarksville.
The state has allocated $1.8 million for the planning of the road widening, and $369,000 of that is to be spent in the fiscal year starting July 1, said Lora Rakowski, a highways spokeswoman.
The schedule calls for final designing to start about a year from now, with construction later, she said.
Howard County and state highway officials say safety is their primary concern. Growing congestion, they added, will merely force traffic off Route 32 and into residential areas, where streets would be affected.
But Izzi disputed that view, arguing that when Route 32 is saturated, motorists will avoid it, staying more to major highways such as I-70, con- necting to U.S. 29 and then to Route 100. Howard County is planning to add a lane to each side of U.S. 29 north of Route 100 to reduce rush hour congestion.
Though residents are wary of the creation of a panel of experts, county officials welcome it. "It's a great approach. I'm very supportive of bringing people in [to advise the highway administration]," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard's planning director.
"We really have to show that not doing this [widening] will have a bigger negative impact."
Rutter maintained that as long as zoning isn't changed and water and sewer pipes are kept out of the western county area - which is county policy - widening the road won't worsen congestion.
Frederick County has plans for up to 13,000 new homes in the Mount Airy region, and widening Route 32 will help reduce congestion, not add to it, Rutter said.
"I see it as a challenge for us to convince this committee that widening Route 32 is smart growth," he said.
Murphy, of the State Highway Administration, said that daily average traffic on the highway increased from 18,000 vehicles in 1997 to 26,000 last year. Two years ago, officials predicted that a volume of 29,900 vehicles a day would not be reached for more than 20 years.
"It's getting to be about its peak [of capacity]," Murphy said of the traffic volume, adding that 80 accidents, including one fatality, occurred on Route 32 last year. The fatal accident was at the I-70 intersection.
That accident rate is 25 percent above statewide averages for two-lane highways, she said, though it equals the 80 accidents on the highway in 1998. The state has installed new safety devices, including blinking yellow lights, a narrow median and "rumble strips" near busy intersections.
Murphy said the expert-panel concept is unusual and has been used only twice before by the state for projects that are locally controversial - the U.S. 301 corridor improvements in Southern Maryland and the proposed White Marsh Boulevard extension in eastern Baltimore County.
"This is a way to look at the Smart Growth implications of SHA projects."
Without such a panel, "all we have to go on is what the counties tell us," she said, and the highway administration is not a land planning body.
Howard County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman , a Republican who represents the area, said something must be done about Route 32.
"It's pretty bad right now," he said, blaming much of the congestion on commuter traffic from Carroll County.