The Maryland Board of Public Works, spurred by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's administration, voted yesterday to bypass the state's "smart growth" law to allow planners to study widening a heavily traveled stretch of highway in western Howard County. The action prompted protests from environmental leaders who say the decision will open new parts of the Washington region to sprawl.

The vote by the board, to allow state officials to study the expansion of a nine-mile section of Route 32 from two lanes to four, still must be approved by the Maryland General Assembly and the federal government to receive funding. But it sends the strongest signal yet that Ehrlich (R) is willing to depart from the development policies of his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D), a proponent of so-called smart growth, which concentrates construction in areas that are already developed.

Ehrlich administration officials and Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) have argued that the section of roadway between Clarksville and Interstate 70, lined by farms and single family homes, must be expanded to alleviate traffic congestion, reduce accidents and enhance the state's road network across central Maryland.

"Our administration is incredibly sensitive to protecting rural Maryland," said Ehrlich, who sits on the board, along with the state treasurer and comptroller. "The issue is preserving what ought to be preserved, but also improving the quality of life."

Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), represented by his deputy, voted to approve the exception to the smart growth law. Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) opposed the measure.

Environmental leaders and several state and local officials from Howard County protested the project, saying it would lead to an explosion of development in western Howard and in Carroll and Frederick counties by providing easier access to the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

"I think it is completely antithetical to smart growth," said Del. Neil F. Quinter (D-Howard). "Carroll County has been the epitome of runaway suburban sprawl for the last many years, and this decision rewards this irresponsible growth and very much encourages it."

Dru Schmidt Perkins, director of 1,000 Friends Maryland, an environmental group, said, "This is a very, very strong signal that they either fundamentally do not understand growth and development issues . . . or they have an absolute callous disregard for the future of the state."

Yesterday's action is only the second time the Board of Public Works has voted to grant an exception to the landmark 1997 law, which Glendening pushed through the General Assembly. In 1999, over objections from Glendening, the board agreed to grant an exception to begin planning a bypass around Manchester in Carroll County.

The law establishes "growth areas" across the state where new construction and projects such as road, water and sewer improvements are to be targeted. It also designates "slow growth" sections, where the state cannot fund projects without the approval of the Board of Public Works.

Western Howard is designated a slow growth area. But Route 32 has become a major travel route for motorists from sections of Frederick and Carroll counties that are growth areas.

Transportation officials say Route 32 in western Howard is now the highest-traveled two-lane highway in Maryland. Since 1990, the number of vehicles on that stretch of road every day has swelled from 9,900 to 28,000, officials said. By 2025, the number is expected to grow to 45,000.

The winding road is so dangerous that Robey, a former Howard County police chief, said he has told his family not to use it.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan argued to the board that an exception to the smart growth law was needed based on "extraordinary circumstances" involving traffic and accident rates.

Flanagan was backed by the three Republican legislators who represent western Howard.

"If you don't do this, what you're doing is cutting off Carroll County's exit to the outside world," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman. "It's not for Howard County people. It's not a local road; it's a major, major route."

State transportation officials say they have long envisioned Route 32 as a major thoroughfare to connect Western Maryland to areas farther east.

Currently, the highway is at least four lanes between Route 97 in Anne Arundel County and Clarksville. The Glendening administration stopped plans to expand the highway in western Howard.

Yesterday, the former governor refused to comment directly on the Ehrlich administration's decision but said research bears out the fears of environmentalists that adding lanes to highways encourages further development.

"The reality is it is going to make the situation worse from both land-use and congestion standpoints," Glendening said.

Glendening, however, discounted suggestions that his smart growth initiative is jeopardized by the board's decision.

Instead, he said, the law worked as planned because state transportation officials had to clear the hurdle of winning approval from the Board of Public Works.

If approved, the road expansion and safety upgrades will occur in phases that could take more than a decade, depending on funding. The first phase of the project, which would cost $30 million, would be the construction of a new interchange at Burnt Woods Road.

Route 32 traffic in Howard County backs up during the evening rush.