Majority supports connector proposal
Percentage drops if alternatives discussed
Friday, July 17, 2009
A survey commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation indicates a majority of Charles County residents support the cross-county connector, but they would prefer a sustainable alternative that doesn't cost a lot of their own green.
In a question designed to test whether residents supported or opposed construction of a new connection between U.S. 301 and Route 210 at Bryans Road, a 59 percent majority voted in support, while 24 percent opposed the plan.
Conducted June 28 to 30 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C., the survey interviewed 500 randomly contacted registered county voters. Respondents answered five direct questions about the county's connector plans, and indicated their agreement or disagreement with five statements read to them about quality of life, conservation and alternative options for connecting the county. There was a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.
"The survey clearly indicates citizens are seriously concerned with the growth pattern currently taking place [in the county]," said Terry Cummings, manager of advocacy for the CBF. "The survey shows that once people understand the ramifications of where a $60 million price tag is coming from out of the pockets of the citizens, coupled with the potential for environmental damage and what is at stake, it makes [residents] change their minds about the project."
The project is a highway which will link the western part of the county with Waldorf. Only three phases between Middletown Road and Route 210 remain to be built, and those plans are awaiting approval from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
What's drawn the ire of residents and environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is the seven acres of sensitive natural area that lie in the path of the connector. Though county planners have reduced the affected acreage nearly in half and defended the connector as a safer alternative to Billingsley Road and as a way to link the two halves of the county, critics contend that the Mattawoman Creek would still be devastated by the construction of the road through the watershed and continued development in that portion of the county.
"In any survey, political or environmental, you ask the questions to get back what you really want to hear," said Charles County commissioners' President F. Wayne Cooper (D). "We don't just want to protect [the watershed] we want to improve it. We will do everything we can to improve the water quality of Mattawoman Creek."
Less than a week after the survey was completed, both the county and connector opponents held press conferences to gather support and understanding for their causes.
"One of the reasons we did the poll was that we didn't feel like there had been a poll taken of how [residents] feel about things very recently," Cummings explained. "We wanted to know how the citizens felt about growth and growth management, and the survey clearly shows a majority of the voting public has concerns … of where Charles County should grow."
"We just spent $250,000 on an additional environmental study because the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested we do that. The county has spent about $650,000 in environmental surveys," Cooper said. "This project has been delayed, and the more delays the more it will cost."
As far as growth management and the general leadership of the county, the ranking of good, fair and poor each received a third of the votes.
Charles County Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said he had not seen the survey questions, but when asked about the strong support for the connector in general terms without alternatives presented, he said he was not surprised at the high percentage.
"Most of my constituents are in favor of the connector," Collins said. "Any ideas which move [the county] forward on things such as environment and infrastructure, and improving opportunities they see as positive."
But the percentage for support dropped markedly when dollars and sensitive natural resources came into play.
When told the connector will cost the county $60 million, 52 percent of those responding opposed the plan and 38 percent remained supportive. Similar percentages were recorded when the interviewees were told of the threat advocates say the road poses to Mattawoman Creek, should the connector get the OK to proceed.
Several survey questions inquired about alternative solutions to the connector, such as a railroad system connecting Charles County to Washington, D.C., and responsibly managing existing communities and roadways.
In the past, connector advocates have said a railway running north and south would not only take at least a decade to build up the required funds and infrastructure, but won't address safely connecting the eastern and western portions of the county.
"I've talked to people who live [in the middle of Bryans Road]" and the idea of improvement on a treacherous road is something they are supportive of," Collins said.
As for managing existing neighborhoods, county officials say there are already zoning decisions and plans in place for future growth of the development district, and to ensure control over inevitable growth, a main connecting road must be laid to avoid any unrestrained construction.
"This is not something we just started working on," Cooper said.
"This plan has been in place for 18 years. This is not a win or lose issue; it's about doing what is right for the citizens and for the future."
"It's looking to be like this is becoming a zero-sum game," Collins said. "The county has done an extreme amount of research to ensure we mitigate as best as we possibly can."
When asked if the percentages reflected whether the survey takers understood the timeline for a rail system, Cummings said he was not sure.
"I think what the survey shows is very surprising numbers," Cummings said.
"Seventy-three percent of citizens, that's almost three-quarters, think the railroad should be a priority above the cross-county connector, for whatever reason."
Of the 500 people surveyed, 241 were male and 259 were female. Fifty-seven percent of the voters surveyed were between 18 and 49.
Cummings said the foundation planned to release the survey findings today. Along with the recently published report, "Trouble Ahead: Use Alternative Routes," the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will continue its campaign against the connector, Cummings said.