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Bypass talk shows officials' lack of planning

May 15, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

The citizen and city hall forces who apparently have put an end to talk of an eastern bypass around Hagerstown might indeed have had goodness and light on their side.

The route, which would have patched Interstate 70 east of the city through to I-81 to the north, would have churned up a wide swath of the rural landscape and probably seeded a new, outer orbit of sprawl.

But set that aside for the moment.

What makes one want to weep is that here was a local government group, perish the thought, planning for the future, and it gets beaten down like a Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher.

The bypass option was referenced in documents drawn up by the Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization, but it hadn't drawn a lot of attention until U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett - apparently unintentionally - spilled the beans by happily announcing a federal grant to study the project.

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Before that, Hagerstown City Councilman Martin E. Brubaker had been sounding the alarm and pointing out, probably with reason, that the proposed highway flew in the face of the county's growth and conservation plans.

Although proponents of the road tried to wave off the fuss by saying that the idea was old news and had been talked about for years, Brubaker was correct to believe that a lot seemed to be going on behind the scenes without proper public involvement.

So when word of this "old news" leaked out, public reaction was - well, it explained why highway advocates had preferred to work behind the scenes.

The pity is that the negative public reaction scared off the always-squirrely County Commissioners, who voted 3-2 (Commissioners John F. Barr and James F. Kercheval voted no, bless them) requesting that a reference to the highway be removed from the MPO report. Which it was.

Now to change the subject - but not really - consider the traffic situation that is about to blow up on Robinwood Drive, thanks to commissioners past and present who never dreamed of looking to the future where highways were concerned.

Any county official who did not have his thinking cap locked away in ministorage could have seen a decade ago that there would be a need for a "back" entrance to Hagerstown Community College, which would connect Eastern Boulevard to Robinwood Drive.

Without an escape valve off Robinwood, traffic was at a crawl. But the commissioners then did not act. Then, three things happened - Washington County Hospital announced it was moving to Robinwood, the commissioners decided the college would be a good spot for a new senior center and economic considerations drove students to HCC in record numbers.

Still, the commissioners did nothing but talk. As they talked, the chance to secure a right of way east of Antietam Creek slipped away and the land fell into private hands. It can probably still be had, but at a higher price.

The commissioners are worried about the cost of the entire project, and they ought to be. But consider that a decade ago, this project would have "cost too much" as well. How much more will we pay now? And how much more will we pay tomorrow if we fail to act today?

Make no mistake, this road is inevitable, and everyone knows it. With any planning at all, this project would have been on the front burner and "shovel ready" when federal stimulus money began whizzing past our window. There is some stimulus funding left, but if we miss out on that, too, because no one bothered to look to the future, taxpayers will have every right to be mad. And motorists heading to the hospital, college and senior center will have every right to be more mad.

This is the danger of suffocating even the mere discussion of future transportation needs. This commission is so politically skittish that it essentially decided that it does not want to even talk about a theoretical project that probably was 20 years off into the future.

But if something a fifth of a century away gives this group heart failure, then it surely does not want to consider the here and now. Because if the commissioners continue to sit on their hands, the thousands of people who find themselves parked on Robinwood Drive when the new hospital opens will surely support only those candidates for whom "plan" is not a four-letter word.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com">opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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