The costly roads to our crowded future

August 22, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Are we ready?

Boiled down to its essentials, that's the question I asked Gary Rohrer, director of Public Works for Washington County, about the wave of development now taking place in Washington County.

Will the county's road system be overwhelmed by big developments like Westfields, the Ausherman Development project on Md. 65 that was approved in April?

When the development is built out, in seven or eight years, there will be approximately 750 homes on more than 400 acres, with all traffic exiting onto a state road that is only two lanes wide for most of its length.


Rohrer's answer: It can be handled, but it will cost millions of dollars. About $25 million will be needed to maintain - and in some cases rebuild - many stretches in the county's 830-mile road system.

Using new computer software, Rohrer said his department is putting together what he called a "pavement management program."

"It will inventory every mile of road, its condition and its use so that we can establish priorities" for repair and reconstruction, he said.

The roads that get the hardest use, like those in the county's Urban Growth Area, are those likely to get the most attention, he said.

Then there are the upgrades that will be needed to handle additional traffic and to correct problems with existing intersections. All told, they could account for $37, about two-thirds of which should be paid for by developers, Rohrer said.

The project list includes:

  • An upgrade of Halfway Boulevard extended, where a number of businesses have located or expanded. The county's desire is to see that road extended to a tie-in with Md. 63, Rohrer said.

  • The U.S. 40 intersection at Edgewood Drive, which Rohrer said will be handled by a partnership of the county, the City of Hagerstown and the State of Maryland.

  • The Maugans Avenue project, which takes U.S. 11 traffic to Interstate 81. This project has been delayed, Rohrer said, by negotiations with developers.

"Everything was brought to a halt until we could get developers to pay their fair share of the freight," Rohrer said.

Judging by his remarks, that will be an ongoing issue.

"We're looking very aggressively at every piece of development, to see its impact on existing infrastructure," he said.

It's not commercial and business that impacts roads the most, Rohrer said, but residential, which adds vehicles without the greater amount of offsetting tax revenue provided by business and commercial development.

To hear Rohrer tell it, it's a balancing act in which the county needs to collect enough to cover the cost of the work, but not so much that it makes the county unattractive for business development.

The balancing act worked successfully in the case of projects like the reconstruction of the Halfway Boulevard interchange and the extension of Massey Boulevard from the Valley Mall to U.S. 11.

"In many cases, development is paying its way," he said.

The county's road system is reviewed annually to make up the Capital Improvements Budget, Rohrer said, but is also revisited as problems or new developments occur.

On the most important projects, Rohrer said that Maugans Avenue reconstruction will start next summer, Edgewood Drive later in 2005 and improvements to Longmeadow Road, which links Md. 60 and U.S. 11, will begin in fiscal year 2008.

The awful intersection at Marsh Pike and Md. 60, which (in my opinion) confuses everyone who has to use it, will be rebuilt starting in 2006, Rohrer said. It will be a complicated project involving both city and state officials, he said, because the long-range plan is to connect Eastern Boulevard at that point.

The cost for all the new road work?

"Thirty-seven million additional. Some of it is more developer-driven than others. I would say that close to half or more, no two-thirds of it would be developer-driven," he said.

But the project that might be the county's biggest headache is the Robinwood road system, where development would force upgrades even if Washington County Hospital weren't contemplating moving there.

Upgrading the Edgewood Drive and Mount Aetna Road intersections with U.S. 40 are "critical," Rohrer said.

"If you've got an ambulances coming through those intersections and there's a problem, somebody's life could be in jeopardy," he said.

As for the other road improvements, Rohrer said there's a whole study in place and that the hospital has agreed to participate.

Asked to what extent, Rohrer said, "I'm not at liberty to say. It's a substantial amount of money, I can tell you that."

"The health system has already made substantial contributions that others have benefited from. We're trying to give consideration to that," he said.

Asked if the road network could be done by the time the hospital opens, Rohrer said that "given that the hospital is on a three-year construction cycle, I think we're in good shape."

"My greatest concern is not our ability to deal with growth. My greatest concern is our existing road infrastructure and getting additional funding," he said.

The present board of commissioners has been generous, he said, providing $1.2 million in the last budget, much of which went to Urban Growth Area roads.

"There just wasn't enough money to go around," he said.

There never is, and if the worst that happens is that we'll have to endure a couple of years of traffic jams during all this road construction, I'll be surprised.

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