Written By Anne Blue
When Barry Boston bought a motel on Route 140 more than a decade ago, the former owner told him stories about sitting in his office overlooking the highway and watching only a few cars pass in a couple of hours. That description of Route 140 offers a snapshot of the highway more than 40 years ago.
Now Route 140 bustles; some would even say that during the morning and evening rush hours, it boils. Currently, up to 52,000 vehicles travel the road daily and the State Highway Administration (SHA) projects that increasing traffic will make the road unsafe and inadequate by 2025.
Although Boston built his inn into a successful family business and hopes to pass it on to his children, the SHA’s efforts to improve traffic flow may get in the way of his long-term plans. Boston is not alone.
More than a few people are concerned: The State Highway Administration has unveiled five plans for improving 2.5 miles of 140 through Westminster, from Market Street to Sullivan Road. Three alternatives–numbers 1, 3 and 4, were eliminated in earlier studies. The remaining alternatives range from making no changes in the road, to making major alterations at main intersections in the corridor. The proposed changes could displace as few as four businesses, or as many as one resident and 29 businesses (See graphics page 24).
Business owners like Boston realize that more than one of the proposed alternatives spell doom for some businesses. Whether that doom is related to access, quality of life, or complete closure – they say that they see a lot less light in their futures since the hot button of highway expansion got pushed again.
“I’ve invested a lot in my business – from the 20-foot evergreens shielding guests from the noise of the highway, to my newest building, which is closest to the highway,” said Boston.
One of Boston’s buildings is close to the highway and might be lost if the SHA takes that land as part of the right of way needed for some of the proposed road improvements. Says Boston, “I couldn’t survive [without it.]. This 40-unit building has my newest and largest rooms.” Others, like Terry Jones, the facilities manager for St. John’s Parish, also worry about the state taking more land from church property for the right of way it might need to complete some of the proposals.
Jones said that when it comes to protecting the peace of the church, “you couldn’t build sound walls high enough.” In the early 1960’s, planners began making long-term plans for transportation in Carroll County. These plans included a Westminster Bypass. In 1999, the state dropped this bypass from its plans and the county followed suit in 2001.
Now county officials and residents are looking at several new solutions for the same old problem – diverting a high volume of traffic without adversely affecting the community.
Community response to the State Highway Administration’s alternatives has been mixed. Most who have spoken at public hearings favor resurrecting plans for a Westminster bypass. Many agree that Alternative 2, which would involve widening lanes and is the least disruptive and costly, is feasible.
“The alternatives are not complete without a bypass,” argued Dean Camlin, a local architect, at a public hearing held by the SHA. “People need to urge the Commissioners to put the bypass back on the master plan.”
Among the concerns expressed by residents were the fears of having a superhighway cutting through Westminster and further dividing the city, of businesses lost to construction projects, and of turning what is currently a business corridor into a super speedway for commuters.
“It will be like a racetrack to nowhere,” said Ben Perricone, a longtime Westminster resident who also attended the SHA public hearing.
“[The alternatives] are all about access to Pennsylvania and making the commute easier for those people.”
Other residents say they fear increased traffic noise and the chance that SHA will construct unsightly sound barrier walls. They also say that such sound walls and a super highway cutting through Westminster will divide the town and ruin the flavor of the community for those who live, work, and shop here.
Ed Zimmerman, a real estate development professional with the SitePro consulting firm who works on projects for 7-Eleven, Inc., warns against the adverse effects of precipitous action and urges a combination of solutions. The 7- 11 store on Route 140 and Center Street in Westminster would be affected–and possibly relocated–by at least one of the proposed alternatives.
“Traffic needs can be met by adopting Alternative 2,” said Zimmerman. “If done in concert with the resurrection of the bypass, it will accomplish exactly what needs to be done for the greater good. It will remove the transient commuter traffic from Maryland Route 140 and put it on Routes 27 and 97, creating a commuter corridor between Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The immediate effect will be the removal of gridlock and its root cause. Commuters on these roads are not using the services along Route 140 and are only interested in getting from home to work and back again.”
The Carroll County Chamber of Commerce strongly supports Alternative 2, which completes long-planned improvements on 140. “Anything other than Alternative 2 will be a detriment to businesses and will adversely affect the quality of life in Carroll County,” said Bonnie Grady, President and CEO of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.” The Chamber “vehemently opposes Éany alternative or variation of alternatives designed to handle all of the projected future traffic volumes on [Route 140], in the absence of a bypass.”
A transportation committee of the Chamber has studied the alternatives and written a position paper on them. The paper urges the Carroll County commissioners to restore the bypass to the master plan and work toward it as a longterm solution to Route 140 traffic problems.
Westminster Mayor Dahoff favors a combination of Alternatives 2 and 5; a “mix and match approach to the problem of a traffic-overloaded Route 140.
“The City of Westminster never took the bypass off our master plan,” says City Councilman Robert Wack. “Many pieces of the bypass would be in the city and the city still supports this.
“Eventually the whole stretch [of 140] will be a nightmare,” he said. By looking at the SHA alternatives for 140, “we are trying to see what can be done in the short term that is not too crazy.”
Members of the Westminster City Council wrote a letter to SHA supporting a combination of Alternative 2 and parts of Alternative 5, which involves an underpass. Besides optimizing the traffic signals and widening outside lanes (Alternative 2) the Council supports part of Alternative 5 at the Malcolm Drive intersection which is the busiest one in the corridor. Work at that intersection would create through-lanes running under the intersection with elevated turn lanes and cross traffic above.
The Carroll County Planning Department and the Carroll County Board of Commissioners are also studying the alternatives. Steve Horn, Director of Planning for Carroll County, said, “We are trying to balance the need for long-term improvements with the impact that these changes may have on businesses along the road.”
The Malcolm Drive intersection is different than others in the study area because it affects two very busy state roads, Routes 140 and 97. The combined volume of traffic on these two major thoroughfares is already very high.
“As a side road, Route 97 creates a lot of pressure on the [current] traffic lights at Route 140,” said Horn. Because this is such a busy intersection, the county also supports long- term improvements at the interchange. At Horn’s urging, the County Commissioners recently agreed to appoint a Blue Ribbon Commission to study the feasibility of a Westminster bypass.
Commissioners will appoint members to the panel who will begin their study early in 2005 and report their findings to the commissioners.
It is important to remember that this is only the planning phase of the project, said Carmeletta Harris, SHA Project Manager. The planning phase is also the only stage of the project for which money has been allocated. Later stages, including a final design, right of way, and actual construction are not currently funded. After more meetings and culling of information from the public and local governments, the project planning team hopes to be able to present a recommendation to the SHA administrator in the spring of 2005.
Though the time frame for adding comments to the official public comment transcript has passed, Bonnie Grady urged people to write to their commissioners. “Tell the County Commissioners whatever you feel about 140 and urge them to put the bypass back on their master plan.”
As local businessman Dave Peloquin sees it, “The best alternative is Number 2 and a bypass, definitely a bypass. But hey, anything is possible. After all, the Red Sox won!”