In a direct challenge to the Ehrlich administration, a conservation group announced last night that it will file suit to block state funding for widening a congested two-lane road in western Howard County, arguing that the project would lead to a loss of farms and open space on the Baltimore area's fringes, and undermine Maryland's nationally recognized Smart Growth policies.
Leaders of the group, 1000 Friends of Maryland, said they will file a notice of intent to sue -- to ask a Circuit Court judge in the next few days to overturn a Board of Public Works decision in July to exempt the Route 32 widening project from the state's strict Smart Growth law, which limits state funding for roads, sewer lines and other public facilities to existing communities.
State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan has defended the $200 million widening project as essential to reducing congestion and improving safety on what his department figures is the most heavily traveled stretch of two-lane road in the state.
Flanagan has argued that making it a four-lane road will serve the development that has taken place or has been approved.
But opponents counter that the project could spur construction of an additional 45,000 homes in Carroll, Frederick and Howard counties.
"By expanding it, you're rewarding poorly planned development," Schmidt-Perkins said. "We know that doesn't work. Somewhere this has to stop."
She said the exemption, granted by a 2-1 vote of the Board of Public Works, was "decided in an illegal manner" and that the state failed to consider alternatives to widening the road that might not encourage more new housing in far western suburbs.
The proposed widening "has the potential to substantially allow for a big chunk of new growth in an area of classic sprawl that the Smart Growth Act was designed to prevent," said William Eichbaum, president of the group's board of directors.
Representatives of the governor did not respond to requests for comment last night.
The congested nine-mile roadway has been a lightning rod for debate for nearly a decade, dividing politicians and homeowners. Much of the route -- the section from Clarksville in western Howard to Interstate 97 in Gambrills -- already has been widened to accommodate increased traffic. State highway engineers have been studying since 1995 how to ease congestion and accidents on this two-lane stretch -- the most heavily traveled in the state, according to state traffic counts.
Though the road does not have the highest accident rate in the state, it has had several high-profile accidents. A woman died and two other motorists were injured Saturday in a two-car collision on the road.
But plans to widen the road ran afoul of the state's Smart Growth law, enacted in 1997 at the urging of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Since then, the state highway agency focused on making improvements to the road to speed traffic and reduce crashes, adding center-line rumble strips and turn lanes, among other things.
Those improvements succeeded in reducing serious and fatal accidents on the road, but state highway officials argue that accidents and congestion are likely to increase, because traffic is projected to grow by roughly 40 percent over the next 20 years, even if nothing is done.
Widening the highway would result in more than doubling the traffic on the road, the State Highway Administration projects.
The SHA sought an exemption to the Smart Growth Act, arguing that the widening qualified under a narrow provision for "extraordinary circumstances." With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. supporting the agency, the Board of Public Works approved the exemption. A representative of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer also favored the waiver, while Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp opposed it.
The Route 32 widening is the second major exemption granted to the Smart Growth law. The first was in 1999, for a proposed bypass around Manchester in Carroll County. The road has yet to be built because of a shortage of state highway funds, and the widening of Route 32 to four lanes is unlikely to proceed for years for the same reason.
Schmidt-Perkins said that her group is going to court in part to prevent further efforts to bypass the Smart Growth Act. She said that state highway officials had told the Board of Public Works this summer that they planned to seek exemptions to the funding restrictions for other road projects.
"By their action, they've gutted the whole purpose of the Smart Growth Act," she said, "and stated that they're going to do it again and again."