Sweating, suit-clad government officials -- county, state and Navy -- clustered on the corner of Route 235 and Cedar Point Road at Gate 2 of Patuxent River Naval Air Station on Friday to applaud the completion of improvements and widening of Route 235 in St. Mary's County's busiest commercial center.
Behind them were a Royal Cleaners, an Arby's and vehicles waiting in the intersection. An electronic sign, usually used to announce construction or traffic delays to motorists, blinked orange letters: "MD 235 RIBBON CUTTING."
Then, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- the sleeves of his blue dress shirt rolled up, giant scissors in hand -- clipped a red-white-and-blue ribbon stretching between two orange construction barrels.
"It's a great day for this county," Ehrlich (R) said, grinning. He snapped the blades.
The gathering celebrated the end of Route 235 construction, a project whose various parts have taken 12 years from planning to completion. The main route through Lexington Park has been widened from four to six lanes.
At Friday's ceremony, county officials also announced funding for plans to relocate residents of Lexington Manor -- the "Flattops" neighborhood -- to eliminate any encroachment on Navy base operations.
In 1992, faced with traffic congestion on the major road near Pax River, the state began planning to widen Route 235. The move was prompted in part by the Pentagon's last Base Realignment and Closure process (BRAC). In that mid-1990s review, personnel and operations of the air station expanded.
Local officials are hoping that the completion of the highway project just outside Pax River's front door will help demonstrate the county's commitment to providing the infrastructure and services needed by the base as the 2005 BRAC review approaches.
In the early 1990s, the portion of Route 235 widened along the fence line of the base had a daily traffic count of about 33,000 vehicles; today, it is more than 56,000.
"Governor Ehrlich understands that Pax River is of immense importance to the state of Maryland and has focused our department on providing all the assistance we can," said state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan
The three-phase project cost $75 million in state and federal funds, more than half of it used for construction, said Neil J. Pedersen, chief of the State Highway Administration. In the early stages, the state worked with a community task force made up of public officials and private citizens to expedite the work and reduce disruptions. "This was also one of the first projects in which we worked with members of the community," Pedersen said. "Now we do it all the time."
County commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) -- standing next to a picture of Lexington Manor -- announced a program Friday to help relocate residents of the Flattops. Each family displaced will receive a grant equivalent to 42-60 months' worth of rent. Families will be able to use the funds to rent new housing or for a down payment on the purchase a residence.
From the podium just off busy Route 235, McKay opened the ceremony by praising Ehrlich for his support of the county and the base.
"Ehrlich has demonstrated a strong commitment to the nation's defense," McKay said.
Ehrlich then reciprocated, heaping praise on his Cabinet and on the people of St. Mary's County, noting that Pax River contributes $2.7 billion to the state economy.
At the end of the remarks, McKay moved the officials behind the ribbon and directed its cutting. Holding his fingers ready to count, he said, "No one can cut till I get to three."
"Three!" -- and the ribbon collapsed to a weak "Yay!"