Road discussion reopens debate on Waldorf bypass

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Charles County Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) reiterated his protest last week of the board’s preference for a western bypass of Waldorf.

In a vote on where to position an extension of Mill Hill Road in relation to the future bypass, Collins once again voted against language that could have implied the board’s endorsement of the western bypass option.

Collins’ vote echoed the one he made two weeks ago against the county’s published Comprehensive Transportation Strategy.

Collins later said he would prefer that the board wait until the state has completed its environmental study of the project before endorsing a specific option. The State Highway Administration is studying an eastern option as well as an upgrade of the existing U.S. 301 corridor and is expected to deliver its recommendation in the next year.

At issue last Wednesday was the tangential problem of what to do about Mill Hill Road.

The county has begun plans to extend the road southward to connect it with a planned extension of the cross-county connector, thereby creating another through road between Route 228 and the connector and giving the North Point High School complex access to a second main highway.

The problem is that the alignment chosen for the Mill Hill extension directly conflicts with the most likely alignment of the proposed western U.S. 301 bypass, known to SHA as ‘‘Billingsley West Option 2.” According to Melvin C. Beall, the county’s chief of capital projects, SHA sent a letter to county government last month, informing it that this option would be the most likely selection for any western bypass of Waldorf.

Beall proposed that the board could direct another alignment for Mill Hill Road, which would likely require the county to purchase more property.

Or, he proposed, the commissioners could put the project on hold and wait to see what SHA decides next year.

‘‘There is a window of opportunity to wait for the state to make their decision,” Beall said.

Despite the fact a year’s delay would also delay the county board of education’s plans to hold high school graduations at the North Point complex, the commissioners agreed that it would be best to wait for the results of the SHA study.

North Point opened in 2005, and the school board had planned to begin holding county graduations on the site as early as next year, instead of at the ShowPlace Arena in Upper Marlboro. However, the site is only accessible from Route 228 and needs another access point in order to handle graduation traffic.

Saying it ‘‘wouldn’t be wise” to spend taxpayers’ money until SHA makes a decision on the bypass, Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) moved to suspend work on the Mill Hill project until the county received word on the ‘‘western bypass.”

Collins objected to the language of Hodge’s motion, suggesting that the motion should leave open the question of which bypass option the state might select.

Hodge retorted that it is the commissioner board’s policy to support a western bypass, a policy that was written and sent to Transportation Secretary John D. Pocari in June.

‘‘I see no reason whatsoever to amend my motion,” Hodge said. ‘‘What I wanted to do, and did, was make a motion that was consistent with the preference we gave to the secretary.”

In the vote on Hodge’s motion that followed, Collins cast the lone ‘‘nay” vote.

In an interview last Thursday, Collins stated, ‘‘I am not opposed to the western bypass.”

Collins said he is simply in favor of waiting until the SHA study is complete before endorsing any option.

‘‘I’d rather know every variable,” Collins said.

However, the state and the county are rapidly running out of variables, according to Ernest Wallace, chairman of Citizens Against the Waldorf Bypass.

CAWB has lobbied the commissioners to abandon their preference for the western bypass, given the environmental and economic impacts the group believes the project would have on the county. CAWB instead prefers an upgrade of the existing U.S. 301 corridor.

Wallace said the county’s problems with squeezing all of its proposed upgrades into the rapidly growing western side of Waldorf are just one more reason to abandon the bypass idea.

‘‘They are building themselves into a problem,” Wallace said. ‘‘They are getting to [a practicality problem]. I don’t think they are quite there yet. ... But they are running out of space.”