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Opponents speak out on bypass possibility

April 02, 2010|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- The possibility of a new highway through northeast Washington County dominated discussion of a regional transportation plan Thursday.

A federally designated group has been working on a look at transportation in Washington County and West Virginia's Berkeley and Jefferson counties for the next 25 years.

The Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is considering whether to look specifically at a northeast bypass -- connecting interstates 81 and 70 -- as part of a traffic study.

About 70 people attended a public meeting on the transportation plan Thursday at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown building.

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Several spoke out against the bypass idea, calling it of questionable value and an epic change to an agricultural area.

George Anikis, chairman of the Washington County Planning Commission, said the bypass might reduce traffic about 10 percent to start and less later on, yet would cost an estimated $820 million to build.

But Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval, the MPO's chairman, said the community needs to think about how to ease traffic decades from now. He said the number of obstacles will increase every year.

Robert Gordon, the MPO's director, said the group has identified about $4.6 billion in transportation needs for the region through 2035, but there's only about $496 million available.

MPOs across the country have been required to regularly update their transportation plans. The period had been five years, but it's now four years.

The draft plan of the local transportation plan includes a specific mention of a four-lane highway that would run from Interstate 70 east of Hagerstown to Interstate 81 near Hagerstown Regional Airport, with interchanges at Md. 64, Md. 60 and U.S. 11.

It's listed not as a project to pursue, but as an idea to include in a traffic study.

However, Hagerstown Councilman Martin E. Brubaker, a member of the MPO, said the specific mention of the bypass isn't needed and should be removed. Without it, there still will be a thorough study of traffic, roads and alternatives, he said.

Winston Herbst, who lives in northeast Washington County, said the volume of traffic on the interstates keeps rising. "Funding or no funding, we have to keep up with traffic," he said.

A subset of the Greater Hagerstown Committee -- a group of community leaders who work privately on issues -- supports a bypass study to gauge costs and think about traffic safety, said Art Callaham, the committee's executive director.

He also said there's a national security concern, referring to a possible evacuation of the metro Washington, D.C., area in a national emergency.

That reason drew groans and ridicule from some people in the crowd, prompting Callaham to reply, "I'll tell my friends in Iraq that people here don't care about national security."

On Tuesday, the Washington County Commissioners voted 3-2 to ask that the specific reference to the bypass be eliminated from the draft report. Kercheval was in the minority.

The MPO is scheduled to meet April 14 to discuss public comments.

The public comment period will be open through April 16. Written comments can be submitted at http://www.hepmpo.com or by e-mailing Gordon at rgordon@hepmpo.net.

The MPO is expected to meet April 28 to vote on a final plan, Gordon said.

This was the third of three community meetings this week on the draft plan. Gordon said about 15 people attended in Berkeley County on Tuesday and about 25 to 30 went to a meeting in Jefferson County on Wednesday.

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