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Oakland Bypass Raises Questions

Once again, the proposed 219 Oakland Bypass has become a topic of interest. The annual Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and State Highway Association (SHA) public meeting took place Friday, October 6, at the Garrett County courthouse. Although it was a public meeting, it was evident by the extent of compliance that previous meetings between MDOT/SHA officials and local government had already transpired.

The proposed Oakland Bypass was presented as “the number one planning and number one safety priority” according to Director, Deborah Carpenter, Garrett County Department of Planning and Land Management.

Anyone who has been following this lingering proposal or participated in meetings held by Garrett Countians for Smart Growth realizes that the Oakland Bypass neither addresses the interest of safety or the economic needs of Garrett County.

The proposed 2.4 miles, 50 miles per hour highway will not only further divide Oakland and Mountain Lake Park but includes a roundabout which creates a potentially dangerous obstacle for pedestrians and local traffic including school buses, horse trailers, farm equipment and commuter drivers. It will also invite noise and chemical/exhaust pollution to nearby residential areas.

At last count, the estimated $100,000,000.00 investment is a highly questionable and contested appropriation of state tax dollars. The Maryland SHA website boasts a commitment to enhance existing roads and preserving state infrastructure. This project does neither. Local jurisdictions generally expect SHA to simply supply funding for repairing aging roads and bridges.

Oakland officials state that there is too much commercial truck and commuter traffic in downtown Oakland. Much of Oakland’s commercial traffic can be attributed to necessary and unavoidable deliveries to local businesses. Also, downtown businesses depend on a flow of traffic to thrive.

The Oakland Bypass would connect Route 219 North and 219 South at just north of the Oakland Walmart and at the intersection of Route 219 and Route 135 at Burger King. By constructing a bypass, Garrett Highway could draw commercial traffic through the Deep Creek Lake business area, thereby potentially increasing unwanted truck traffic during peak tourist seasons.

According to Garrett County local planners, there would be an “off-ramp” to direct traffic into Oakland. It sounds like an accommodating solution but drivers could view Oakland as a detour rather than a natural stopping point along their planned travel route.

Officials also state there is a traffic safety issue in Oakland. Why then, was the traffic speed limit recently raised from 25 mph to 30 mph? Perhaps the “The 85 percentile” rule was implored. This means 85% of drivers were already averaging 30 miles an hour or less, so the speed limit was raised 5 miles to accommodate driver habits. If it’s about safety, enforcing a safer speed limit rather than rewarding drivers for bad behavior would make more sense.

If you have time to take an off-ramp to a town near a bypass, you will see they often decline or even die. Hancock, Cumberland, Grantsville, and Friendsville are all ramp accessible to massive amounts of commuter and commercial traffic along Interstate 68. Most of that traffic never stops for gas, food, or shopping. Each municipality suffers a struggling economy yet share the distinction of being closest to Maryland’s busiest highway.

For nearly a century, Route 40, however slow travel by today’s standards, connected these towns as convenient resting points when traveling east and west through Maryland. Once it was replaced by a straighter, faster interstate, rest stops replaced town visits and the 200 mile stretch of road was reassigned as a “Scenic Route” rather than a vital commercial connector.

Oakland’s continued efforts to secure grant money to revitalize downtown Oakland would appear to be the greatest inconsistency in the bypass debate. What is the incentive to invest resources and passion into a business when governing efforts are looking to divert traffic away from the heart of a downtown area? Businesses along the 3rd Street “strip” through Oakland are an example of why locating where the densest traffic flow is occurring is smart. Once a bypass is constructed, that desired traffic flow will be diverted even further from downtown Oakland. What is now a sleepy small town quietly slip into a full coma.

Even more distressing is the fact that the officials of the town of Oakland present the bypass solution as only affecting their individual municipality and no others are relevant in a decision. This highway is not a building or stand-alone project. Accessing the bypass affects other areas of the county too. At the very least, Oakland government should be eager to consult with Mountain Lake Park officials who are not only their neighbors but the most densely populated municipality in Garrett County.

MDOT/SHA officials have now stated that they have decided to “reignite the decision for the Oakland bypass.” MDOT made the decision to study the Oakland Bypass a second time with what they call a “practical design approach that might lower the cost of the Oakland Bypass to make it affordable,” yet their approach was not stated at the public meeting. Even if it had been, it would appear a decision has already been made.

For years, objections over the bypass were ignored by local and state officials who stated, “The money isn’t there anyway.” New conversations about the bypass would imply that funding is suddenly available and state officials are willing to invest in the project. With previous elected officials green-lighting an Oakland Bypass, now is the time for local citizens to present their views and County officials to reconsider the merits of the redesign proposal. The Oakland Bypass should not be presented as a done-deal without full disclosure and input from other municipalities, businesses, and residents who will be directly impacted.

Contributor, Debby Ward is the former Director of Patient Care Management for Garrett Regional Medical Center and has a Master's in Social Work (MSW)

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