The idea of mass transit hasn't exactly been popular in Carroll County, where leaders traditionally have viewed big, costly public transportation systems as big-city concerns.
But that might be changing. Carroll leaders are backing future regional transit projects in exchange for help with a more pressing highway dilemma just across the border in Howard County. Carroll officials want to double the width of Route 32 running north from Interstate 70 in Howard to Sykesville to boost a developing business park on the grounds of the former Springfield Hospital Center near the county line.
As part of a regional transportation strategy, Howard agreed to advance that $96 million project completion date from 2030 to 2015, and Carroll officials will limit a future widening of Liberty Road west of Eldersburg and divert the money to mass transit.
No one should expect to see commuter trains zipping around Carroll anytime soon. But County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said residents' outlook on mass transit is changing.
"Thirty years ago, you would get lynched right outside the building [for mentioning mass transit]," said Minnich, one of Carroll's three county commissioners.
A growing population that has spawned road congestion and strained budgets is part of the catalyst, Minnich said. With the business park in Sykesville expected to provide revenue and jobs that will keep more residents closer to home, bringing it about by cooperating in regional transportation matters makes sense.
"There is an antipathy in Carroll County toward mass transit," Minnich said. "[But] there's going to come a day when there are better ways to move people. ... We have to be supportive of any efforts to improve public transportation in the state of Maryland."
The discussions have arisen amid work on a long-term plan by the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, made up of the area's top elected officials - including Minnich - and the secretaries of three state government departments. The board's job is to develop a plan for long-range transportation projects involving federal funds.
In the $8.7 billion long-range plan for transportation expansion, each of the six Baltimore metropolitan-area jurisdictions agreed to give up one highway project to put another $250 million into mass transit. The move came after criticism from environmentalists that an early draft of the plan contained too little support for mass transit.
The final version was adopted in November, said Harvey S. Bloom, transportation director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which administers the board.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, the chairman of the transportation board, also agreed to postpone widening a busy section of U.S. 29 between I-70 and Route 100 in Ellicott City, while Carroll cut off plans for widening Route 26 (Liberty Road), limiting the project's western boundary to Route 97 instead of going farther, to Route 27.
Ulman, a mass transit advocate, has cited the cooperation between Howard and Carroll in several recent speaking appearances.
"It was important for us to cooperate as well," Ulman said. "It gets to the heart of this issue that counties need to talk to each other."
Carroll's shift toward a more regional approach to transit planning drew praise from an environmentalist.
"What I have seen is some really impressive change in the way they're beginning to plan their future," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group that has vigorously opposed plans for widening Route 32 south of I-70 in western Howard County.
"We have great concerns about widening roads endlessly without good regional planning thought," she said. "Generally, widening roads means more people living farther away from jobs."
Carroll officials see the new business park - called the Warfield Complex - as an important way to broaden the county's economic base and reduce the number of commuters.
"The Warfield Complex is a premier business park and one of the primary gateways to the county," said Lawrence Twele, Carroll's economic development director. "Having a dualized highway to get there is really key to having the park develop in a timely manner."
The project also is "vitally important" to the town of Sykesville, said Jonathan S. Herman, mayor of the community of 4,500 people. The town annexed 100 acres of the old Springfield Hospital Center complex eight years ago, he said, and finished rebuilding the main intersection serving the new business park last year. Two companies have moved in.
The plan calls for 500,000 square feet of mostly office space in both renovated hospital buildings and new structures in the park, eventually expanding employment there from about 50 people now to 1,000, Herman said.
"Part of the beauty of the Warfield Complex is that it should ultimately reduce traffic going down Route 32," he said. "The idea was to keep people in Carroll County instead of commuting into Baltimore. It's really a model for Smart Growth, and it makes us economically vital."
Schmidt-Perkins pointed to potential benefits that transcend road width and traffic counts.
"Once you shorten people's commutes," she said, "quality of life goes way up."