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New turn lanes won't solve all traffic problems

June 30, 2009

For all the dubious arguments against building a new regional medical center off Robinwood Drive (that elementary school students' education would be disrupted by low-flying helicopters was good), one concern stood above all others -- traffic.

It still does. State and local officials have blamed the "failed intersection" at Edgewood Drive and Dual Highway for a problem that, in our view, a couple of new turning lanes are not going to solve. The traffic in and out of Hagerstown Community College alone swamps what basically is an old country road several times a day, not to mention the new subdivisions, housing complexes and businesses that have popped up along the Robinwood corridor in the past decade.

These developments were waved through by the Washington County Commissioners, despite the fact the county never has had in place a coherent highway plan for the area. Remember that in the '90s, the commissioners drew up as many as 10 alternate-route proposals east of Robinwood and then built none of them. Since then, an extra lane has been tacked onto Robinwood here and there without anything resembling a successful solution to the daily traffic mess.

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Meanwhile, the commissioners continue to allow unabated growth. In light of the traffic nightmare, the fact the county even would consider building a new senior center near HCC is jaw-dropping.

Add to all of this the thousands of vehicle trips a day when the hospital opens next year and the disaster in the making becomes readily apparent, it would seem, to all those who are not holding public office at the moment.

As development continues, progress on the transportation front is barely limping along. Last week, the state once again awarded a contract for the Edgewood intersection after scrapping a similar contract from a year ago following a bid dispute. On this point, there is little to say except in Washington County, it always seems to be something -- be it bid dispute, asbestos, sinkholes or alien invasion -- that mires our projects in perpetual quicksand.

One exception, it should be noted, was completion of the Funkstown bridge project, which, not coincidentally we would argue, was under intense public scrutiny. There, contractor incentives for early completion worked wonders, and we hope the Edgewood project will offer similar carrots -- and be watched just as closely by the public.

But all of the players in the hospital and surrounding infrastructure projects cannot improve the Edgewood intersection and be done with it.

As mentioned, this is not a problem that one intersection reconfiguration alone will solve. There can be no excuse for the city and county not having a shovel-ready plan to build a bridge across Antietam Creek connecting Robinwood Drive to Eastern Boulevard, thus creating another entrance to HCC and the hospital. Nor can the intersection of Robinwood Drive and Jefferson Boulevard -- or any other pressure point that is ready to burst -- be ignored.

We have supported the hospital's move out of the downtown, with the caveat that adequate roads be part of the package. By failing to consider the corridor as a whole, it smells as if the state, county, city and hospital have tossed the motoring public a bone by promising to upgrade the Edgewood/Dual intersection, hoping this action will count in the public's eye as "doing something" meaningful about traffic.

It does not. Only in conjunction with a more comprehensive highway plan for the entire area can this project hope to offer relief. State and local governments and, not least of all, the hospital itself have assured us they have planned for the influx of employees, patients and emergency vehicles when the medical center opens in 2010. They all stand to be held accountable if and when the facts prove otherwise.

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