State transportation officials are moving ahead with plans to widen a nine-mile stretch of Route 32 in western Howard County despite concerns of environmental leaders that it will lead to sprawl and undermine Maryland's landmark "smart growth" law.

The Department of Transportation plans to ask the Board of Public Works next week to grant an exception to the smart growth law, enacted in the late 1990s to discourage rampant building in rural areas, so the road project can move forward.

Transportation officials say the two-lane stretch of highway between Interstate 70 and Route 108 is just too congested and too dangerous for them to wait any longer. In the past decade, nine people have been killed in traffic accidents on that stretch of highway, officials said.

"The road back in 1980 carried 4,000 vehicles, and it is now carrying 28,000," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration. "But it largely looks the same as it did 20 to 30 years ago, except with a heck of a lot more traffic."

Transportation officials want to begin planning a $200 million project to add two lanes to the highway and construct a median barrier. First, however, officials want to fast-track the construction of a new interchange between Burntwoods and Ten Oaks roads and Route 32.

Environmentalists are distressed that transportation officials are asking the Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, to grant an exception for the construction when it meets Wednesday.

Under the smart growth law, state resources can not be directed to construction projects, including water and sewer upgrades and highway projects, that are not in designated growth areas unless the Board of Public Works approves the plan.

George Maurer, a senior planner at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said widening Route 32 would turn western Howard and Carroll counties into a "sprawl way."

If the board approves an exception for this project, Maurer fears it will open the door for other highway projects in other areas of the state.

"It just appears to be a very baldfaced attempt to circumvent the smart growth act," Maurer said. "The law is very clear, so we are very concerned that this project could create a precedent. . . . What highway does not suffer from some congestion or does not have some fender benders?"

Edgar counters that growth is already occurring in western Howard and Carroll counties. "The development is there now, and the volumes of traffic are there now," she said.

Western Howard lawmakers are siding with state officials.

"I think most of the development [in Howard] is either occurring or has occurred," said Del. Warren E. Miller (R), who plans to testify next week in support of the project. "Ultimately, I think where you will see the development is up in Carroll County. "

Social Services Firing

A veteran employee of the Howard Department of Social Services was abruptly fired from her job last month after she publicly criticized longstanding staff vacancies in her division.

The dismissal of Kathi H. Heslin, 52, of Frederick from her job as assistant director for family investment programs -- first reported in the Baltimore Sun this week -- came after Heslin spoke to a local citizens advisory board about the 42 percent staff reduction in state programs that provide cash assistance to needy Howard families. Heslin had prepared a report for the board at the request of retiring Social Services Director Samuel W. Marshall.

She told the board that the cuts, dating from a 2001 state hiring freeze, has doubled caseloads for social workers and halved the number of employees available to take applications for cash assistance. State Department of Human Resources administrators refused Howard's request to fill the positions using only county money, she said.

Heslin, who had worked at the agency more than 28 years, said she was visited June 29 by Byron Harris, DHR chief of staff, and Marie Haavik, DHR deputy director for human resource development. She said they told her there would be a "change in leadership" and that she should have her office cleaned out by the next day.

"I was so shocked I went numb," Heslin said in an interview this week. "I couldn't really ask them any questions. I just got up and left."

Heslin's firing has prompted sharp criticism from local lawmakers and the chairman of the citizen advisory committee for social services.

"It's really part of a pattern of callous and mean-spirited treatment" of state employees by the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said Del. Neil F. Quinter (D-Howard), chairman of the county's local legislative delegation. "That sends a chilling message across state government."

Melody Higgins, chairman of the citizens board that advises social services, said Heslin has had "an exemplary record" with the agency. "She devoted her whole career to the state of Maryland, and what does she get for it?" said Higgins.

Maryland Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe was out of town and would not comment on the firing because it is a personnel matter, said Norris West, department spokesman. McCabe, a former Republican state senator from Clarksville, "cares about Howard County," Norris said. "He is always going to make sure the customers [at DHR] are served the way they should be served."