Ru­ral high­way gets new $61.5 mil­lion look

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS -

Not much hap­pens at the in­ter­sec­tion of U.S. 40 Al­ter­nate and U.S. 219 in Grantsville, so I asked the at­ten­dant at the Gar­rett County refuse and re­cy­cling sta­tion down the road what all the earth­mov­ing was about. “Oh,” he said, “that’s for the round­about.”

The round­about? You mean a traf­fic round­about? “Yup.” A traf­fic round­about near the in­ter­sec­tion where not much hap­pens? Where there never seems to be any­thing you could call traf­fic? Some­one at the county roads of­fice must have made a mis­take.

Though I live in Bal­ti­more, a three-hour drive from that spot in West­ern Mary­land, I have been through the great small town of Grantsville dozens of times over the last 25 years, mostly on fish­ing trips to the Cas­sel­man River, with stops at the Hill Top Fruit Mar­ket and the Shop N Save. I get off In­ter­state 68, turn north on 219 (or Chest­nut Ridge Road) and stop at the traf­fic light at Route 40 Al­ter­nate. The area is never con­gested. That’s why I scratched my head at the idea of a traf­fic cir­cle there.

I was a bit per­plexed at the scope of the ex­ca­va­tion, too. It seemed to be for some­thing much big­ger than a sin­gle round­about. I went from per­plexed to stunned when I saw the spec­i­fi­ca­tions and price tag for the 1.4-mile project: $61.5 mil­lion. You could repave a lot of pot­holed streets in Bal­ti­more with that kind of dough.

Where, I won­dered, would Gar­rett County get $61.5 mil­lion, and for such a du­bi­ous project?

Then it hit me: This must be Larry “Road Warrior” Ho­gan money.

I re­called a quote that ap­peared in the pages of The Bal­ti­more Sun: “The high­way from nowhere through nowhere to nowhere.” That’s what Dru Sch­midt-Perkins called this project near Grantsville. At the time, she was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the en­vi­ron­men­tal group 1000 Friends of Mary­land, and she was crit­i­ciz­ing how the gover­nor in­tended to spend state money on 219 and other roads af­ter he killed the Red Line.

In 2015, just a cou­ple of months af­ter Ho­gan had sent the Mary­land Na­tional Guard into West Bal­ti­more to quell the April unrest, he spiked the Red Line light rail project — wast­ing 10 years and mil­lions of dol­lars in plan­ning and de­sign, and say­ing no thanks to more than $900 mil­lion in fed­eral trans­porta­tion funds. At the same time, Ho­gan pledged to put $2 bil­lion into sub­ur­ban and ru­ral roads, mak­ing clear that he had no in­ten­tion to ex­pand mass tran­sit in Bal­ti­more while re­ward­ing ar­eas of the state that had sup­ported his elec­tion in 2014.

One of the road projects was the re­align­ment of Route 219 north of In­ter­state 68. That area, to the east of down­town Grantsville, is not ex­actly “nowhere.” There are gas sta­tions, fast food, a shop­ping cen­ter with a Sub­way and an ex­cel­lent hard­ware store. But, af­ter that, north of Route 40, it looks like it an or­di­nary ru­ral road.

I un­der­stand po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties and par­ti­san fa­vors. What I don’t un­der­stand is the Route 219 Re­align­ment project.

It calls for cre­at­ing a new par­al­lel road, a by­pass essen­tially, though the present road seems fine.

What we have here is a small piece of a grander project to widen Route 219 to move traf­fic more ex­pe­di­tiously be­tween In­ter­state 68 and Som­er­set, Pa., and the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike. Ap­par­ently some movers and shak­ers, in­clud­ing U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, have long thought this was an im­por­tant goal, part of an “Ap­palachian De­vel­op­ment High­way Sys­tem.” An Oct. 13 press release from Ho­gan’s of­fice stated: “This $61.5 mil­lion project has been a top Gar­rett County trans­porta­tion pri­or­ity for decades.”

A “pri­or­ity for decades”? If the re­align­ment of this ru­ral road was such a press­ing mat­ter, a pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion in An­napo­lis would have found money for it years ago. Par­don me for be­ing skep­ti­cal of large, new road projects through the ru­ral coun­try­side, es­pe­cially when there’s a huge need for im­proved in­fra­struc­ture in heav­ily pop­u­lated met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas.

“We are proud to be de­liv­er­ing this im­por­tant project,” Ho­gan said in the release. “To­day is an­other ex­am­ple that we have been do­ing ex­actly what we said we would do.”

No ar­gu­ment there. Ho­gan is a road warrior. He promised as­phalt. He’s de­liv­er­ing it. But this is the same man who, in killing the Red Line, said, “We are op­posed to waste­ful boon­dog­gles,” then ap­pears to have funded a beauty in Gar­rett County.

/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

A rel­a­tively quiet in­ter­sec­tion in Grantsville is part of a $61.5 mil­lion road project.

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