The construction along Route 175, which connects Millersville to Columbia and serves as the northern boundary of Fort Meade, has been going on for a few years.
And that work along Route 175 will be going on for another few years, including the part of that project that calls for adding two lanes to the bridge over and upgrading the exits to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Route 295), another one of Fort Meade’s three key access roads.
As for upgrades to the Parkway, well, that’s another story.
Opened in 1954 as the main connection between the two cities, the Parkway is only a two-lane road at the point where it passes Fort Meade and opened when the Corridor was barely developed; it was intended to offer a faster, scenic option to reach the Nation’s Capital than Route 1 provided, with an easy and (true to its name) park-like access to the District.
While Interstate 95 would open after the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the early 1960s to provide express routes for cars and trucks, the Parkway is the closest of those three major regional arteries to Fort Meade.
But, given the post’s seemingly constant expansion, how can the current rush hour gridlock and safety issues be addressed before they get worse?
Crux of the Issue
Stuart Title, vice president of A.J. Properties, in Odenton, and chair of the Fort Meade Alliance Transportation Committee, was asked in 2014 to attend a stakeholders meeting by the National Park Service (NPS) of the National Capital Region (NCR) that focused on improving safety on the Parkway.
“The study from the Park Service was conducted by Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center, and they did an excellent job. They offered short-, mid- and long-term solutions to improve safety along the parkway,” Title said, noting that additional stakeholders and attendees are participating from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), Fort Meade, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the BWI Business Partnership and many other concerned entities.
While the group appears to be diverse, Title pointed out one way that it isn’t.
“Most of the people involved work for the NPS or public transit; but myself and Colleen Richarts of Maryland Live!, unfortunately, seem to be the only private sector attendees still involved. I think the casino is interested because they have to soon compete against the new MGM [National Harbor],” he said.
Title also feels that the NPS may not be the right entity to address the issues.
“I feel that the NPS doesn’t have the intellectual assets or funding to be responsible for a major highway, let alone implement a terrific study,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me that the same division that handles security around the national monuments would be handling a parkway that is in deplorable condition. It was, at maximum, designed to handle 50,000 cars a day; now, it’s 120,000 cars a day.
“What’s apparent to me is that this undertaking is too big and too technical for the NPS to handle,” he said, “and the state of Maryland already has the necessary intellectual assets that are necessary to maintain and operate a highway.”
For now, however, Title is on board with the near-term plan.
“The U.S. CyberCommand is up at Fort Meade, and we need new signs and improved access,” he said. “I have not found anyone, in the public or private sectors, including executives from Corporate Office Properties Trust and Maryland Live!, Mike Gill [secretary of the state Department of Commerce], [Anne Arundel County Executive] Steve Schuh [who intends to raise the issue with Gov. Larry Hogan], [Rep.] Ruppersberger and [Congressman] Sarbanes, who disagrees with me.
“I also have made my opinion very clear to the NPS, and they have not pushed back at me at all,” Title said. “I think they’re aware of it, too, and would be relieved” if a change in authority occurred, “but until they are no longer responsible, their efforts should be applauded.”
Another roadblock to a transfer of authority is, not surprisingly, money.
“The state seems to be willing to take it over,” he said, “but they want, and need, some federal money that is not in their current budget or transportation plan before undertaking repairs and maintenance. I’m just talking new digital and fixed signage, lighting upgrades, paving and additional patrols after dark. That’s it for now,” he said, pointing out that the NPS has charted where most accidents and DUI arrests occur along the Parkway.
Still, there are people and organizations who oppose the state taking over the route “because they still consider the artery a park and don’t want the road widened,” Title said, “but an independent study regarding widening did conclude doing so would increase safety. I am also told by MDOT that most widening could be accomplished within its existing boundaries.”
However, that could take 15-to-20 years, or more, to fund, design and implement, as transportation projects have already been funded during the current six-year funding cycle through 2022. (A representative of the State Highway Administration opted not to offer comment for this article.)
From the other standpoint, there is “a long history of opinions about how the Parkway should be taken care of,” said Matthew Carroll, superintendent of Greenbelt Park and the Parkway for the NPS.
“Over the years, as development in surrounding communities progressed, strains on the roadway have also increased,” Carroll said. “The challenge the NPS is faced with is trying to maintain a balance managing a culturally significant parkway with supporting current needs by improving safety to handle greater volumes and driver speeds.”
And for a two-lane road, “120,000 commuters per day is a lot of traffic,” he said, “and accident rates along with serious injuries have been increasing for some time.”
Looking at future options, Carroll pointed to the Federal Highway Administration’s B-W Parkway Widening Feasibility Study, from 2012. “Many people think adding a third lane is the answer. One of the key conclusions of the study was that future population and employment growth in the region would quickly overtake the additional capacity offered by a third lane. This would unfortunately result in traffic congestion similar to what we have today,” Carroll said.
As is case with the state, the resources needed for the NPS to fix everything on the Parkway are limited; however the NPS did recognize that additional resources are needed, because in 2015 it reorganized the management structure of the Parkway and created a superintendent position focused with maintaining oversight of the roadway between Route 175 to the D.C. line, at New York Avenue. Carroll assumed his role in June 2015 and has been making what he called “steady progress” during the past 16 months.
Carroll said his “top priority is to improve safety for commuters, visitors and people working on the Parkway. We’re doing this by partnering with the state and others agencies to repair the worst sections of the road and seeking non-traditional funding sources to accelerate projects in the coming years.
“For example,” he said, “the stellar improvements at Route 198 on the northbound Parkway are courtesy of the state of Maryland. Looking for other opportunities that benefit multiple agencies is a win for everyone.”
In 2015, a B-W Parkway Safety Task Force was formed to review roadway improvement options and make recommendations for action. Today, the group is assessing “a laundry list of ideas to improve safety along the Corridor, while keeping an eye on maintaining the integrity of a culturally significant resource in the region,” Carroll said.
But even if the news improves for the locals, they still have to get in line. It’s well known that, for the next three-to-five years, the NPS’s first priority is the $90 million renovation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, between the Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.
In the near term, the NPS is undertaking other parkway projects: Repairs to several hazardous areas on the Parkway near Routes 197, 198 and 32 will be completed by the end of November; next comes the restriping of the Parkway, from Route 175 to Route 212 (Powder Mill Road), by late fall.
And he stands behind the thought that the only thing that might be worse than not adding a third lane to the Parkway would be doing just that.
“I understand the ‘Field of Dreams’ theory: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Carroll. “But I also have concerns about how to then support key regional customers, such as Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.”