In Columbia's early decades, South Entrance Road, the original road into the new community, sometimes was closed by flooding. Then, in November 1996, one of the two ramps connecting the road with U.S. 29 South was washed away.
For six years, drivers have used a surviving ramp relatively infrequently because merging onto or off of busy U.S. 29 is dangerous with no acceleration or deceleration lane.
But increasing congestion on other roads leading from U.S. 29 to Columbia's Town Center has prompted Howard County and the Maryland State Highway Administration to decide to breathe fresh life into the old Columbia entrance.
To reduce traffic backups on Little Patuxent Parkway, Broken Land Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway around Columbia's Town Center, the county and the SHA have agreed to share equally the cost of a $1.38 million project to build a safer link between southbound U.S. 29 and South Entrance Road.
Kimbler Construction of Finksburg is building the ramp, including deceleration and merge lanes and shoulders, at the site of the washed-away branch of the old ramp.
The work should be completed by early fall, weather permitting.
When the connection is finished, the existing ramp will be closed and replaced with trees, and shrubbery to restore the landscape. Also, the part of Old Columbia Road between the existing ramp and South Entrance Road will be removed.
A small portion of Old Columbia and the existing ramp will remain at the county's request to provide walkways.
An alternate route
Dennis Miller of the Rouse Co. predicted the ramp will help lessen traffic congestion on other entrance roads but not increase the number of vehicles traveling into the heart of Columbia. "The greatest benefit is to provide more alternatives" to drivers, he said.
To commuters, the new connection will mean a safer entrance to Columbia.
"It's really bad. There's not much merging area," said Katja Ericson of the current South Entrance Road ramp.
Ericson, who has lived in Columbia for 12 years, works at the box office at Toby's Dinner Theatre, the closest business to the exit. She said she will use the new exit if it fulfills its promise of providing "a smoother transition from the side road to the highway."
"I want that access," said Cecile Wong, as her eyes widened at the idea of having the new ramp. "It will be easier and faster," she said.
Wong, of Owen Brown, has worked at Howard County Central Library, near the ramp, for 19 years.
The South Entrance Road ramp offers a quicker route to work for her, but she takes the long way on Broken Land Parkway and avoids the ramp because its "too short" and "too dangerous."
Whenever South Entrance Road is closed because of flooding, Tanis Hadley, another librarian at Howard Central Library takes Broken Land Parkway to U.S. 29, a route that doubles her commuting distance. "If something is finally happening to that ramp, that will be great," she said.
Although Hadley described the South Entrance ramp as "very narrow, winding, and dark," she continues to travel the dangerous road. "I will do anything to get home faster," she said.
Adding flood control
To avoid a repetition of the destructive 1996 flooding, construction workers are building a 8-by-14-foot triple box culvert across a branch of the Little Patuxent River, replacing three pipes damaged in the flooding.
A half-mile stretch of South Entrance Road will be reconstructed, resurfaced and extended across the top of the new culvert to connect with southbound U.S. 29, the SHA said.
Construction will cause limited weekday lane closings on U.S. 29, the SHA said.