Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Garrett County Courthouse Board of Commissioners
The Garrett County Commissioners heard the most recent transportation requests from Deborah Carpenter, Director of the Department of Planning and Land Management. Each year the office assembles transportation needs throughout the county and prioritizes them before seeking state funding from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). Several projects were submitted to the department by various municipalities, the Planning Commission, and Garrett Trails with many of the priorities remaining the same as the previous year’s requests. Oakland Alternative Truck Route, previously called the Oakland Bypass remained the number-one priority as submitted by the town of Oakland. “It’s my understanding that SHA (State Highway Administration) is looking at design at this point and time,” said Carpenter. “They have $500,000 allotted for 2018 and $500,000 for 2019 and their taking another look at the design.”
A bypass around Oakland has been debated since the 1970s. Several town councils have reviewed the issue and the State Highway Administration (SHA) has invested millions in studying its viability for improving traffic flow and traffic safety. Those opposing the bypass worry its construction will divert traffic from the downtown business district causing merchants to close or relocate toward the bypass route, leaving the historic downtown area a ghost town.
Those supporting its construction complain of too much traffic through Oakland and that heavy traffic is scaring off shoppers who want a more quiet downtown experience. The last vote taken on the issue was in 2007 following heated public opposition. The Mayor and Town Council voted to proceed with the bypass and the current Mayor and Town Council have elected to carry that vote forward rather than revisit it with a new vote. SHA presented the bypass project last October as a "safety" priority. Following the presentation by Carpenter, the Commissioners opened the meeting for public comment. Engage Mountain Maryland (EMM) Legislative Chair, Eric Robison took the opportunity to raise several issues that would contradict the need for the proposed Oakland Alternative Truck Route that was the top priority from Oakland Mayor and Town Council. Robison shared some history of the bypass and a SHA 2-year traffic study from 1993 through 1995 that recorded 108 accidents. A newer study from 2011 through 2013 showed just six accidents that would indicate how upgrades effectively dealt with traffic safety issues, according to Robison. Improving intersections and traffic light timing were some of the more passive solutions Robison suggested may be credited to the reduction in accidents. The same 2-year study Robison shared projected a 2% increase in traffic volume while the later study discredited SHA's own conclusions by finding a 12% decrease in daily traffic volumes. "We’ve lowered that threshold for safety,” Robison continued. “And Garrett County ranked lower than state averages for traffic incidents in the 1993 study." A more recent SHA traffic volume study anticipated an increase of only 200 vehicles over the next 18 years or by the year 2035, according to Robison. "We know the county needs infrastructure, but we need to know how is that going to impact downtown,” He stated. Robison also cited a federal study that indicated towns with populations less than 3,000 were often economically devastated by constructing a bypass or alternative route. SHA needs to receive a request for a “deletion of an item” in order to remove the bypass from the priorities list, according to Robison. He read from Maryland law that any item may be deleted if the local delegation and local governing body determine the project is undesirable. “When we're looking at the fiscal note that’s happening with this [the bypass] and that increase of 200 cars over 18 years, fiscally that’s not even sound,” said Robison. He then suggested looking at other projects that would upgrade Routes 135 and 495 to develop designated truck routes using existing infrastructure to pull the less-than 1% of semi-truck traffic out of Oakland. “Let’s move on to projects that are more economically sound and help with our development in the future.” Debby Ward, a resident of Mountain Lake Park, quoted from the Garrett County Republican newspaper, stating that Oakland’s Town Council Chair, Jay Moyer suggested that “If Oakland does not move forward with its request for funding for the bypass that it will have a negative effect on any future highway funding projects for Garrett County.” She felt the statement was absurd and that the Governor would respect local officials if they viewed the project as wasteful spending, carrying potentially negative economic impacts. Ward reinforced Robison’s recommendation by requesting that the bypass project be deleted from the projects list. A survey was presented to the commissioners from EMM that asked area residents their opinion on the bypass. Mark Stutzman, President of EMM noted that the largest response came from in-county residents not living in Oakland. Stutzman stated from his perspective, the public is viewing the bypass as a county-wide issue rather than just specific to Oakland where the decision is being made. This survey is still available online at www.engageMMD.org/bypass. Long-time Garrett County resident, David Moe commented that he didn’t feel the bypass would be devastating to Oakland businesses. In his opinion, he felt residents would still come into Oakland for goods and services regardless of a bypass. “Providing an alternate route for people who want to go through to 135, to Deer Park and Mountain Lake Park, and on down south, I feel that helps Oakland. It speeds them through faster.” He closed his comment by saying he’s in favor of the bypass and asked that the commissioners continue to support its construction. A former employee of the county in Economic Development took the opportunity to comment. “The bypass has been an issue since I arrived in 2001,” said Frank Shap. “It continues to perplex the decision makers at the state level, the county level, and the town level as to what is the right thing to do.” Shap concurred that he felt a wise decision would be to delete the proposal request and focus attention toward a designated truck route for through truck traffic not making local stops for food or gas. “Looking at the things that Oakland is trying to do... I think the bypass is 180 degrees out of sync with those efforts,” said Shap. Resident, Gloria Salazar works in downtown Oakland and expressed concern over years-long construction of a bypass hurting businesses in downtown Oakland. She cited a 12% drop in revenue while water and sewer projects were being upgraded throughout Oakland during the 2017 warm season. Large machinery discouraged downtown visits according to Salazar. She asked the Commissioners what they will be doing for the merchants while construction is taking place? She urged the Commissioners to speak with the downtown merchants to hear their concerns. Leesa Towles, a downtown business owner agreed with Salazar. Towels felt the real problem is not traffic but a lack of parking. Towels also raised concern over property values for residents located near a new bypass. Reducing the amount of traffic in Oakland was not an argument Smoke N Mirrors owner, Dave Bruffy agrees with. He shared that 25% of his business is built on drive-by traffic that notices his gallery and photography studio rather than setting it as a destination. He worries that a bypass will reduce the drive-by traffic he enjoys along 3rd Street which is currently the main thoroughfare to travel north and south through Oakland. “You guys have to make a decision about whether to delete this or keep it as a priority,” commented Mike Bell, Garrett County resident. “If only 1% of the traffic is trucks, and if the accident rate is less than average for the state, and if there’s no growth in traffic, and we know these kinds of large construction projects are disruptive to communities, what’s the argument for keeping it? Why would you guys proceed with the project?"
Bell also requested the Commissioners look into a "benefit cost analysis" for the bypass to fully understand what economic impacts could be felt by proceeding with the project.
Commissioner Chair, Paul Edwards explained that the town of Oakland has put in the request and they have to take that into consideration. He also stated that their leaders were elected by Oakland citizens to make these kinds of decision and the Commissioners will need to have further conversations with Oakland’s Mayor and Town Council. SHA has safety issues as a reason and they’re presenting a different argument, according to Edwards. Safety issues are a priority as well for Dr. Dona Alvarez, an orthopedic surgeon. She’s been researching the proposed bypass for the past 10 years and has concerns over a high-speed road cutting through her community. The proposed bypass is just 2.4 miles but will be .5 miles from two nursing homes, three schools, and cuts right through residential Oakland, she says. “This confirms we need to stop and ask ourselves, who is this for?” Alvarez suggested using the $1 million that would pay SHA employees to review the regulation for the bypass impacts to be put towards local law enforcement and medical response teams to improve safety on Garrett County’s country roads. Robison was called on a second time to share that he had nearly 900 signatures on a petition from 2006 that were collected by a group called Garrett Countians for Smart Growth who opposed the proposed bypass at that time. He said the signatures came in before the planning for the bypass had been finalized.
“It represented really strong opposition that was ignored then,” Robison said. He also noted that 3rd street which is currently maintained by the state would revert back to the town of Oakland for upkeep and maintenance and that the property the state will need to acquire for the bypass will be taken off the county tax roles. “These aren’t fiscally smart things to be doing at this time. Especially looking at the new statistics that are coming out from the State Highway Administration. These are their traffic counts,” Robison states. “How do we spend that money more wisely to make our small great town better?"