Updated: Mar 29, 2020
EMM President Mark Stutzman and Legislative Chair, Eric Robison answers attendee questions
Over 40 area residents turned out for a public meeting about the proposed Oakland Bypass, a long-debated issue by Oakland's Mayor and Town Council. Engage Mountain Maryland (EMM) presented new information about what the bypass would mean for downtown Oakland, home to Garrett County's most densely populated commercial business district.
The 2.4 stretch of proposed highway would connect Route 219 North with Route 219 South that currently requires passing through 3rd and Oak Streets in Oakland. The bypass would divert traffic away from 3rd Street just north of Walmart and pass through residential areas and undeveloped farmland to the east of the current state-owned roads. It then connects at the intersection of Route 135 where Burger King now stands.
Last November, The State Highway Administration (SHA) presented the proposed bypass to the Garrett County Commissioners, at which time it was deemed by state and local officials as the number-one safety priority. According to at letter dated July 3, 2017 from the commissioners, the number-one planning priority was the "Truck Corridor Feasibility Study." EMM shared several studies that countered the urgency or legitimacy of either priority claim.
Consecutive years of SHA's Average Daily Traffic studies showed a 12% decrease in traffic volume between 2007 and 2016. This fell far short of their 20-year projections anticipating traffic doubling by 2030. Excessive traffic volume often results in increased incidents of collisions and personal injuries that can justify action to improve or expand road infrastructure.
EMM also shared details of the bypass route that would cross several connecting roads between Oakland and towns to the east including Mountain Lake Park and Loch Lynn that house the largest full-time population of residents in the county. Roads leading to Oakland would be bisected by highway speed traffic that raises new safety concerns and added inconvenience for those residents.
A common complaint among those who support bypass construction is a desire to remove heavy truck traffic from Oakland to make the town more pleasant for passenger vehicles and pedestrians. Traffic studies from SHA show that only 1.6% of the traffic is single-axle trucks that are generally associated with local commerce. They include school buses, delivery, cement, gravel, and tow trucks that would require these roads even if a bypass were available. Additionally, only 0.24% of the traffic was attributed to combination vehicles or large rigs that can also be making unavoidable north/south deliveries. These would include logging trucks and deliveries to Walmart, grocers, gas stations, and retailers.
It was also pointed out by attendees during public comments that no public meeting has yet been held to hear concerns from communities outside of Oakland and why Oakland was given sole discretion to make a decision that would impact the entire county. The decision to proceed with the bypass seemed to be without concern for outside input according to attendees.
Other safety issues were addressed referencing an intersection study by SHA that reported only six accidents between 2011 and 2013 between four downtown intersections. Two involved pedestrians with one of those attributed to a failure to yield right-of-way. One incident involved a truck at 9th & Oak St with the cause unknown. EMM representatives felt the minimal number of accidents didn't substantiate a major alternate infrastructure solution.
Questions were also raised over the sensible use of taxpayer dollars on a road that in 2007 was estimated to cost $53 million according to SHA Project Manager, Sean Johnson. EMM looked into the the price tag which could be nearly double the original estimated cost if inflation rates are applied. An additional $1 million has also been allocated for a new design study with hopes of lowering the cost and justifying the expense of a new bypass. Additional funding will be required for an updated environmental impact study as well that could take two years to complete.
The project is currently not funded by the state which has been one reason those opposing the bypass have been told to not worry. In a meeting on February 5 with Oakland's Mayor and Town Council, The Greater Oakland Business Association (GOBA) Revitalization Committee presented concerns over the bypass. Mayor Peggy Jamison and Town Council President Jay Moyer both said they would support the 2007 motion to proceed with the bypass without dredging up the matter for a new vote. Mayor Jamison qualified this decision because in her opinion, little has changed in Oakland to merit raising it for a new Town Council vote.
GOBA President, Fred Gregg also attended the meeting and expressed concern that the work done on behalf of Oakland by the Revitalization Committee he chairs could be dashed by the bypass. His committee has already taken steps to offer 1 gigabyte of broadband service to the downtown commercial district and installing destination charging stations that will have three Tesla chargers and three universal chargers for travelers with electric cars. Additionally, they developed a pilot program to transition subsidized households back into the workforce.
EMM encouraged meeting attendees to speak with their friends, neighbors, and business owners about the bypass, asking them whether they were up-to-date on the issue and for their opinion. EMM is interested in finding out what public opinion on the bypass is and whether there is enough opposition to request the Oakland's Mayor and Town Council to answer to the wishes of the majority opinion.