Downtown Columbia redevelopment is steadily advancing, matched by a proliferation of transportation improvement projects across the region, making it easy to mistake the construction safety vest for a new fall fashion trend.
It’s difficult to provide a comprehensive overview of every project that’s in the works, but state government administrators and private construction company professionals emphasized a few of the highlights during a series of information sessions last month.
Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary Pete Rahn met with Howard County officials and residents in early November to discuss the state’s 2018–23 Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP).
Later that month in Columbia, a panel discussion at the Maryland Construction Network’s Construction Industry Summit, hosted by Baltimore-based insurance advisory firm RCM&D, focused on development, the current state of the industry and upcoming work in Howard County.
Statewide, there are 846 airport, highway, transit, port, bicycle and motor vehicle construction projects underway with a combined value of $9 billion.
Funding for local priorities includes $10.7 million in Highway User Revenues for Howard County during the next six years, including an additional $742,000 in grants recently awarded by Gov. Larry Hogan. Highway safety grants administered by the state Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) provide $70,000 to the Howard County Police Department and $23,795 to the Maryland Judiciary’s Howard County DUI Court.
According to Rahn, the governor’s $9 billion plan to add four new lanes to I-270, the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway uses a public-private partnership approach with no impact on any of the counties in the state.
“Smart signals are replacing existing outdated, unresponsive traffic controls,” Rahn said. One of the first adaptive signal control systems in the region is planned for the U.S. 1 intersection with Montgomery Road, which should bring congestion relief to some 36,600 drivers daily.
Although the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has now completed the $36 million widening of northbound U.S. 29 between Seneca Drive and Route 175, “we’re having some problems in the evenings getting onto Route 70 [because] people are getting up there even quicker,” noted Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.
Work to widen Route 32 between Route 108 and Linden Church Road will be completed by fall 2018, to be followed by a second phase of widening extending from Route 108 to I-70, with expected completion coming in fall 2021.
A $2.9 million project to resurface Route 32 between Middle Patuxent River and Route 108 is currently underway and should be completed by spring, with construction of the Route 97 and Burntwoods Road intersection scheduled to end by summer.
Other improvements in the pipeline include a new $1.9 million exit ramp from northbound Route 29 to westbound Route 175; $2.3 million in improvements at Route 1 and Kit Kat Road; and Route 103 widening work between Route 29 and Long Gate Parkway.
District 9B Del. Bob Flanagan said he is optimistic that the county and state can make progress on alleviating congestion at the Route 103/Route 29 interchange.
“We’ve got the armory there, and we’re dealing with the federal government, national defense and all the security they’ve had to build in,” he said.
Rahn announced that the MVA reduced the average wait time in its Columbia service center by three minutes in fiscal 2017 and now offers stand-alone vision screening stations and expedited procedures for citizens who need to renew driver’s licenses or identification cards.
“MTA investment in transit provides $2.2 million in operating grants to support the local transit system in Howard County, and the MTA is providing $65 million in funding to support transportation services for seniors and people with disabilities,” Rahn said.
Howard County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Phil Nichols confirmed the county’s intention to pursue a Highway Safety Plan after the county’s Route. 1 Safety Evaluation is complete.
One of the county’s top priorities, Kittleman said, is the section of I-70 between routes. 29 and 40. “Having it go down to two lanes makes it difficult,” he said, resulting in a heavier traffic volume diverting past schools on Route 99 or Route 144, when I-70 backs up.
“We have talked about an extension of [Route] 108 across [Route] 175 and into Columbia Gateway,” Kittleman said. “If we could figure out a way to make that happen, we could jumpstart even more economic growth [there].”
At the Maryland Construction Network’s Construction Industry Summit, Howard Hughes Corp. Senior Vice President of Development Greg Fitchitt identified Area 3 in the Merriweather District as the next project in line for Columbia’s redevelopment.
“We’re partnering with Whiting-Turner on the office tower and parking garage, and CBG [Building Company] is the contractor on the residential piece,” he said. “There’s about 22 acres down there that’s really going to bring that vision to life. We should be starting construction early next year.”
As a greenfield site, Area 3 should allow a faster development pace than some of the other development that has already occurred downtown, said Howard Hughes Design & Construction Management Senior Vice President Bill Rowe.
Redevelopment projects and roadwork will also be in the cards next year, he said.
“We just knocked down a building on the Lakefront [and] we started working on the roadwork, Merriweather Drive, in Phase 1 to get [Merriweather One and Two] open,” Rowe said. “We need to get Phase 2 open prior to Phase 1 of Area 3 opening sometime in 2019. We’re working on the section of road that will ultimately tie back in to Little Patuxent Parkway to complete the loop, which will really help [traffic] circulation.”
In Long Reach Village Center, redevelopment plans call for complete demolition and new construction based on a city grid system, incorporating townhouses, market rate apartments, office space above retail, a parking structure and a vertical garden.
“We’re going to do a food incubator with a commercial kitchen, where startup companies are going to share kitchen facilities and be able to use our co-packaging facility,” said Orchard Development CEO Earl Armiger.
As for the current status of the construction industry in Howard County, “We certainly feel the pain of the labor market,” said Stephen Rubin, director of project development for Columbia-based Harkins Builders. “The good news is the labor market’s tight, but the bad news is the labor market’s tight.”
One of the major challenges, Rubin said, is figuring out how to price projects and hold on to that price when the construction start date is 12 to 18 months away.
While there’s plenty of work to go around, subcontractors remain cautious about the jobs they bid on.
“We’re not going to look at it if there are a lot of bidders,” said Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. Vice President Irene Knott. “The bottom line is: Can we make a profit on the project, and does that project have repeat business down the road? We have our hands full with maintaining the business that our clients are giving us.”
In Howard County, a lot of that business continues to come from Maple Lawn and several major developments along Route 1 — and will, of course, continue to come from downtown Columbia well into the future.
But even so, county officials are already eyeing what comes next after Columbia’s redevelopment.
“We are positioning [Columbia] Gateway to be the next area of growth for the county,” said Howard County Economic Development Authority President and CEO Larry Twele. “Longer-term plans include looking at the transportation systems and land uses inside Gateway. Maybe someday there might be some residential included there to really activate it like a community, like you see happening in downtown Columbia.”