The Oakland Bypass, or Ninth Street Extended (truck route) has become a topic of conversation in Garrett County. On March 15, the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce welcomed Engage Mountain Maryland (EMM) to present their most recent information about the proposed bypass for their Board of Directors. EMM President, Mark Stutzman shared information the nonprofit has been compiling from the State Highway Administration (SHA) and related studies that outline the proposed 2.4 mile road that would connect Route 219 North and Route 219 South around Oakland. Currently all traffic travels through Oakland by way of 3rd and Oak Streets that have been used as the main thoroughfares since the town’s beginnings.
EMM’s presentation to the Chamber of Commerce reflected some updates following a recent critique publicly shared at the March 15 Garrett County Commissioners meeting. "Our mission from the beginning has been to engage citizens on important issues," says Stutzman. “We welcome all input and provide updates as they are available." EMM reported a 12% decline in traffic since 2007 which was overstated by just over 3.05%." This is a relatively minor detail but still important to get right," said Stutzman. "Anecdotal observations are being used to show that traffic is off the charts in Oakland, when in fact it has declined based on information from SHA. Considering all the new development along 3rd Street, I find that surprising."
Based on traffic counts, SHA categorizes Oakland as “Level A”, meaning traffic is free-flowing, lower volume, and higher speed. For EMM, Stutzman explains that the main point is the data is raising questions that are still unanswered. "Rather than attack the data," says Stutzman "We prefer to use it no matter where you sit on the issue. It should guide local leaders to make the best decision for our community."
"A common misunderstanding with traffic counting is that SHA does not count cars, just trips," Stutzman explains. "An individual can make laps around Oakland and rack up multiple trips on the counters in several locations, yet it’s still just one car being counted." He says people often observe the total daily traffic counts and perceive it to be a lot of vehicles when it could be back and forth travel by one driver several times a day.
Stutzman also shared a concern with the new naming of the proposed bypass by calling it a "truck route." That designation would make Route 219’s entire length a truck route which could increase truck traffic through McHenry, according to Stutzman. "The Chamber of Commerce makes significant investments in tourism promotion, and altering use of the main road through McHenry could become a nuisance with visitors the Chamber aims to attract," said Stutzman. "I thought this was important for them to consider." He also stated that EMM has not taken a position on the bypass since it’s still in flux. "Until SHA provides complete and current information, it is impossible to know whether it’s a good idea or not."
The bypass route would cross new uninterrupted terrain to the east of Garrett County’s seat and home to the largest concentration of retailers, services, and institutions in the county. The residential property and farmland where the new road will go have raised two important issues, according to Stutzman. First, he asks how will it impact current residents that are accustomed to a quiet, remote location away from downtown traffic, and secondly, what impacts will be felt by diverting traffic from the current flow where business have invested already?
Stutzman presented other unanswered questions that include the cost of the bypass that was estimated to be $53 million back in 2006. With inflation rates, a representative from the Maryland Department of Transportation said it could be near double that today during last November’s presentation to the Garrett County Commissioners. To reduce the overall cost, the SHA is willing to invest another $1 million to study the project that will top out the total investment since the mid-1990s at over $4 million spent to look at the plan. Many who object to funding the project have suggested alternate ways to spend the state dollars; however, funding requests cannot simply be reassigned, according to Stutzman. "Each project requires a new request so it’s not money that just enters a general fund for Counties to freely spend," he explains.
“Building our presentation hasn’t been easy,” said Judy Carbone, EMM Board Member. “It’s important to have all the data we can to make sure the public is fully, and accurately informed. The bypass has been evolving and continues to change with each iteration, thus raising new questions that require answers and citizen engagement.”
And there have been many iterations. The project has resurfaced many times since the 1970 and failed to pass Oakland’s Mayor and Town Council’s approval until a 2007 vote. The last proposal included a roundabout where the bypass intersects Dennett Road and an overpass at High Street. It’s uncertain if either will be included following further study
"We’re continuously updating information as it’s brought to us," states Eric Robison, EMM Board Member. He did much of the research that has been woven into the organization’s presentation, website, and social media sharing. "The take-away for our purposes was the studies show an overall drop in traffic trips and a reduction in accidents over the years." Robison also discovered through the SHA’s studies, that traffic volume has barely increased in the last 22 years. "Complaints about too much traffic in Oakland doesn’t align with what the state is sharing in their data." Robison complements the town on making cost-effective roads upgrades that have helped with traffic safety and flow through town.
Robison looked further into the volume of truck traffic to see, if in fact, some numbers needed retooling. Originally, EMM shared that combination vehicles traveling through Oakland were roughly .24% of the total traffic. "How you share this data gets pretty tricky," says Robison. "Our focus was on the large, combination vehicles that are more imposing when traveling on town roads." The SHA classifications for single-axle trucks includes common delivery vehicles, school buses, RVs, and some pickup trucks, according to Robison's research. These sorts of vehicles are associated with local commerce. Combination vehicles can also be making local deliveries but can also be long-distance, interstate trips that aren’t making a stop in Oakland.
He also noted that not all counters installed by the SHA specified vehicle types. "The SHA reported 122 trucks classified as combination units or just over one percent of the total trips recorded.” This calculation was challenged by an individual and shared with the Garrett County Commissioners, with the assertion that closer to 600 truck trips were recorded by the SHA. This new total is inaccurate and much higher than combining both single-axle and combination units counted along 3rd Street, according to Robison. He goes on to say the SHA reports 483 total trucks or 5.36% of all traffic trips recorded in the most recent study.
Oakland's Mayor and Town Council stated they will uphold a 2007 vote that approved the bypass to proceed with the qualification that nothing has changed in the last 10 years to require a new vote. "This is something our organization wanted to address," said Robison. "It’s been over ten years since the last vote. The Town Council has changed, and a lot of investments have been made in Oakland, particularly along 3rd Street. If a bypass places those businesses in jeopardy, they should be included in the decision-making process."
The nonprofit has also submitted a request to the SHA for a public meeting to allow new discussion and input from all municipalities, organizations, and citizens in Oakland and surrounding areas. "This would be a permanent addition to Garrett County that should be carefully considered. It can’t be undone later," states Robison.
Over 300 Oakland citizens cast ballots in the Mayor and Town Council elections last week bringing a record-breaking turnout that some attribute to the bypass issue. Challengers made it a platform talking point, promising to bring the bypass up for a new vote with public input. All the incumbents were elected back to serve another term with the exception of one who was replaced by Terry Helbig. He has been outspoken about the bypass and an active downtown revitalization advocate.
There have been some disputes over the need for a bypass but according to EMM, the SHA has failed to produce supporting evidence that the bypass necessary. "If you look at the key economic challenges Oakland is facing, they include empty store fronts and vacant second-story office space," says Stutzman. "People have voiced complaints about limited parking, but the large town lot is rarely full with the exception of when the Farmer’s Market or special events are taking place. The proposed bypass doesn’t address any of these problems."