Abandoning his wait for state action on improving traffic-clogged western portions of Route 32, Howard County Executive James N. Robey wants to widen the highway as one of his top transportation priorities for state funding next year.
The road is a popular route to Annapolis for commuters in Frederick and Carroll counties who are near Interstate 70, and the six-lane divided portion east of Clarksville draws thousands of motorists from the large new homes increasingly dotting the rural landscape.
Residents who live along the two-lane western portion of the road in western Howard County fear that widening Route 32 in their community would make things worse.
"The time for waiting is over. We need action. I think [more] lanes are essential if we're going to improve the safety," Robey said, emerging from an appointment this week in Columbia after a slow midafternoon ride along Route 32 from Mount Airy.
"At 3:15 p.m. it was bumper to bumper," he said of his trip. He also noted the death last weekend on Route 32 of a 20-year-old Marriottsville man who was killed when his pickup truck slid off the road into trees.
The chronic problems on Route 32 have bedeviled officials and residents for the past few years. Every day, traffic backs up where the multilane divided portion of the road narrows to one lane in each direction for the seven miles between Route 108 in Clarksville and I-70 in West Friendship.
Average traffic counts on Route 32 have roughly doubled since 1990, to about 25,000 vehicles a day. From 1992 to 2001, 15 people died in accidents on the highway, then none until this past weekend.
Some want more lanes all the way to I-70. Others, led by residents Deborah and Stephan Izzi's Alliance for Rural Preservation, say that would hurt, not help.
"Increased traffic is the foundation to sprawl, and that's what we're trying to prevent. It's kind of like a vicious circle that never seems to end. We are opposed to widening. You'll have a temporary solution that ultimately will repeat itself later. We're looking to preserve some rural character," Stephan Izzi said.
Legislators representing the western part of the county agree with Robey.
"We're on the same page," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican who especially wants the state to build interchanges to eliminate cross-traffic turns and stop lights on the busy highway.
"That's where the confusion is and that's where the holdup is," he said.
Deborah Izzi disputes that, saying that eliminating the traffic signals would increase speed, truck traffic and danger.
Despite his concerns, Kittleman said, he is not ready to say that he supports higher state gasoline taxes to pay for the work if new state funding is needed.
Robey said he is not a highway planner and cannot say which idea is the best, but he wants something done.
"Everyone says we need to focus on the safety problem, but the volume of traffic on that road creates the safety problem," he said.
He waited for a state-sponsored study committee to issue a report, he said, but nothing has happened.
"I don't know what the holdup is. I've been patient, but we've got to get off the dime," Robey said.
U.S. 1 tops list
The highway is one of Robey's four top road priorities that he has asked state transportation officials to fund next year. First are improvements on U.S. 1, part of the county's revitalization plan for that corridor. The others are adding a third northbound lane to U.S. 29 south of Route 175 and a traffic safety study of the Centennial Lane-Route 108 intersection.
Two transit projects, a new bus maintenance facility to be shared by Howard and Anne Arundel counties and money for three new buses, round out the requests in what Robey said will be a "lean" fiscal 2005 list that includes only the most pressing county needs.
For U.S. 1, which Robey's letter calls "my top highway priority," the county wants state help on safety, streetscapes and traffic improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists.
County Council President Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he agrees with placing U.S. 1 and the bus facility on the list.
'Right on the mark'
"The county executive is right on the mark. He's got his priorities straight, especially when there are less and less [state] dollars," he said.
Guzzone and Robey said that although a bus maintenance facility does not sound exciting, it could be important to the county's mass transit future.
"It will give us the opportunity to make the transit market more competitive and hopefully improve services," Guzzone said.
Robey said the county has received one bid to operate the Howard Transit service, which "doesn't give us but one shot at the best deal."
The county has been searching for several years for a 12- to 17-acre site for a Central Maryland Transit Facility that officials say is needed to attract more competition for the growing Howard Transit and Connect-a-Ride services.
Only Baltimore-based Yellow Transportation, which has a maintenance facility in Savage near Corridor Industrial Park, has sought to operate the buses.
Mark Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation, said that although his company supports the county's request, his 5-acre facility works well, and a new, larger one would mainly attract out-of-state bidders.
"We feel we would still be the most competitive vendor because we operate 1,400 vehicles in this region, in Prince George's County, Fairfax, Va., and Howard and Anne Arundel," he said.
Yellow's parent company, CONNEX, operates 7,000 trains and 14,000 buses in 23 countries.