Bicyclists seek county funding for 'Bikeway' network during first Howard budget hearing

While praising the county for passing the BikeHoward master plan earlier this year, dozens of bicycling advocates testified before County Executive Allan Kittleman Wednesday evening to request the county's fiscal year 2018 budget include funds for a network of bicycle and pedestrian routes.

More than 40 people shared their proposals for county funding requests at the public hearing, including representatives from Howard Community College, Howard County Library System and Columbia village communities. County spokesman Andy Barth said the citizens budget hearing, which was the first for fiscal year 2018, was an opportunity for everyone to share their "wish lists" for funding of programs and projects.

By charter, Howard County is required to have a balanced budget. The 2018 fiscal year runs from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.

On Wednesday evening, the Horizon Foundation, Howard County Chamber of Commerce, Columbia Association and Howard County General Hospital were among several organizations to submit testimony supporting the Bikeway proposal. The County Council unanimously passed the Bike Howard master plan in April to provide bicyclists and pedestrians with a safer network of pathways that navigate commercial and residential areas.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president of the Horizon Foundation, said the Bikeway would be "a strategic and significant first investment" in the bike master plan.

"The Horizon Foundation is dedicated to improving the health and well being of all of our residents who live and work here in Howard County," Vernick said. "With routes and connections, the Bikeway will allow more people in this county to bike just as easily as they can take a car to everyday locations."

The Bikeway proposal asks the county to contribute $3 million toward the project for three consecutive years. Pathways will total 50 miles – 18.9 miles of existing routes and 31.6 miles of new routes – and serve more than half of residences, schools and parks within a mile away.

Laurel, Savage, Jessup and Dorsey MARC stations will be also within 2.5 miles of the Bikeway.

"Only half of adults in this country actually get their recommended physical activity in any given day," Vernick added. "We really want people to be able to prevent disease and part of that is good routine physical exercise."

Jack Guarneri, of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, said the Bikeway connection would be accessible to residents from Ellicott City to Laurel and Clarksville to Elkridge. As Guarneri testified, families of small children stood around him and held poster boards with comment cards showing their approval.

As part of Maryland's Air Quality Control Advisory Council, Columbia resident Lawrence Schoen continued to voice support of the Bikeway project.

"We spend a lot of money on parking facilities [and] we can spend less on parking" with the Bikeway, Schoen said. In terms of safety costs, "I have a cellphone. If I see something suspicious, I'm going to be one of those people calling. You have a lot of responsible community members on those pathways and that makes it safer for everybody."

Andy Krauss, spokesman for the Horizon Foundation, said that the foundation believes Bike Howard gives residents a healthy alternative of transportation, noting a pilot bike share program that will kick off in Downtown Columbia by summer 2017.

The foundation awarded $250,000 in grant funding to the county for the bike share program, Krauss said, with 70 bicycles accessible at the Columbia Lakefront, the Mall in Columbia, the Crescent development, Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College, Oakland Mills Village Center and Blandair Park.

Later in the evening, Howard Community College president Kathleen Hetherington requested $16.3 million to renovate two aging buildings on the campus as well as address deferred maintenance projects. Costs were projected at $11.4 million to renovate the former nursing and science and technology buildings and $4.9 million for projects such as facility enhancements and improved campus signage

"With the completion of the new Science, Engineering, and Technology Building, academic programs will vacate these two existing buildings" built in 1976 and 1989, Hetherington said. "These two buildings have had minor renovations over the years, but they cannot meet the current demand for classrooms and administrative spaces."

The renovation design has been completed, Hetherington said, with pre-authorization received from the state for the first phase of construction at $10.5 million.

Howard County Public School System representatives did not attend Wednesday night's meeting, but have often voiced their requests at budget hearings in years past. Last January, Superintendent Renee Foose requested $838.7 million for fiscal year 2017, her biggest operating budget proposal since taking office in 2012.

The school system later reduced their budget request to $612.6 million in March, but received $617.5 million – 58.8 percent of the county's total operating budget –following the County Council's approval in May.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Kittleman said the county will take the Bikeway proposal into consideration; however, with so many requests, it's difficult to find funding for everything.

"[The Bikeway] is something that I certainly see value in. We'll have to go back and look at how much we have available," Kittleman said. "One thing that I think was very clear tonight was that there's such a variety of requests, but not all of the requests could possibly be put into the budget. We have to look at things, prioritize them and figure out what we can afford this year."

Following Wednesday's meeting, the planning board will review proposals for the county budget in February and then provide comments and recommendations to the county executive and County Council. A second public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive in Ellicott City.

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