University Expressway Proposal Meets Stiff Opposition

Wed May 19, 2004 - Northeast Edition

COLLEGE PARK, MD (AP) Each day, thousands of cars cram U.S. Route 1 as University of Maryland workers drive to work and commuter students rush to class. Sometimes the backups stretch approximately the entire 1.5-mi. from the Capital Beltway to the university.

In an effort to ease those jams, the Maryland Highway Administration, at the urging of the university, is studying a proposed connector highway that would let drivers sail straight from the highway onto campus.

That proposal, however, could pit the university against a large and relatively powerful opponent — the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which would have to sacrifice prime research land for the road. The state has requested $1 million from the General Assembly for a more detailed study of specific routes. Highway officials plan to meet with the university, representatives of the USDA’s research station and local leaders within the next few months to discuss the proposals.

Phyllis Johnson, head of the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, said any road would cause lasting damage to long-term and sensitive research projects. But she said the state would need to clear many hurdles before it can build through the center’s land.

“I guess the state is free to spend its money to study whatever it wants to,” she said. “But the USDA owns the land.”

Traffic on the aging Route 1 has swollen as the university has grown. As of last fall, there were 25,446 students and 12,112 employees, many who use Route 1 to get to campus each day. There are approximately 60,000 vehicles that use the stretch of road between the beltway and campus each day, a number the state expects to grow to 80,000 by 2020.

There are two routes under consideration for the 1.5-mi. connector. One would run through the agriculture center’s South Farm research station after leaving the beltway. The other would follow a power line that runs through the area, according to Mike Haley, a state highway planner working on the project.

A connector road could be used by between 30,000 to 35,000 vehicles daily by 2025 according to state highway projections.

Similar routes have been studied before. In 1999, the state examined various road options but the work was never completed, Haley said. A study was completed last year for a park-and-ride system with a garage near the highway and a two-lane bus road running to campus.

It is still too early to place a cost estimate on the highway options, but it would likely be higher than the $40-million to $76-million tab for the park-and-ride proposal, Haley said.

State highway planners expect to have a final draft of the proposed routes within a few months.

University officials said the road is one of several options under consideration to reduce congestion around campus, including improvements to Route 1, increased bus service and other options.

But they also are pushing hard for the highway study. Administrative affairs Vice President John Porcari sent a campus wide e-mail in February urging people to contact lawmakers to get the $1 million approved. He said in the e-mail that the highway would take 11,000 car trips off Route 1 daily.

“The proposed plan is the most effective way to reduce congestion in the area,” wrote Porcari, who was Maryland’s transportation secretary under former Gov. Parris Glendening.

Porcari said in an interview that the four-lane highway could operate using an E-Z Pass system that would allow the holders of university parking passes or toll payers to access the road. That type of system could help pay for construction and upkeep, he said.

“It has a lot of potential if done correctly,” he said.

But it also could bisect the 325-acre South Farm, which sits just south of the beltway and a few hundred yards away from Route 1.

The farm is home to long-term agricultural studies on matters like pesticide run off and pathogens created by crop production, according to Johnson. Plants for the National Arboretum in nearby Washington are grown there. Several university faculty members even use the property for research.

“If they were to build a multilane road there it would have a serious negative impact on our work,” she said.

Since the site is federal land, only Congress can approve its sale, Johnson said. State regulations also say that if the USDA ever were to get rid of land at the center, it would immediately be rezoned for agricultural purposes, she said.

Local officials also fear that the road would serve only the needs of the university, especially if the E-Z pass system is adopted.

College Park Mayor Stephen Brayman said planners should focus on improving Route 1, a project that is being studied.

“This is definitely diverting attention away from Route 1,” Brayman said. “It is irresponsible to be considering a new roadway when we have an existing roadway in a state of disrepair.”