Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) brought his public works road show to Southern Maryland on Friday, stopping in Charles and Calvert counties to announce transportation funding and break ground on the long-awaited Hughesville Bypass.
At the first stop, more than 100 public officials and residents gathered on the grass in front of the American Legion hall in Hughesville to celebrate the start of the $35 million final phase of the bypass project. The 3.2-mile road, scheduled for completion in summer 2007, will run to the east of Hughesville and is intended to alleviate the notorious traffic jams at the village's main intersection of Routes 5 and 231. The bypass, while located in Charles County, has been the whole Southern Maryland area's top road priority for more than a decade.
"Many folks in this audience have heard promises [about the road] over decades, beginning in 1968. It's 2004; it's time to get it done," Ehrlich said.
Much of his speech at the groundbreaking centered on the political wrangling surrounding the state transportation bill passed in the General Assembly last spring. The bill raised highway user fees to pay for stalled road projects.
"A number of people who voted against the bill were the same people who were in my office two, three, four . . . weeks prior asking for these dollars [for the bypass]," Ehrlich said. "That's politics, and I don't like politics."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), another speaker at the groundbreaking, chastised the governor for those remarks, saying "this event ought not to have such a political tone" and adding that millions of dollars had been spent planning the bypass during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's tenure. Hoyer, who declined a seat among the public officials next to Ehrlich, said he included $10 million for the bypass in a federal highway reauthorization bill. The bill has yet to pass.
Others were just happy the road will be built. Nearly 40,000 cars pass through Hughesville each day, 10 times as many as 50 years ago. Booming growth in Southern Maryland has created hazardous conditions at the narrow crossroads that led to 93 car crashes, 56 injuries and one death over the past five years.
"If there's one thing I fought for since I came to office, it's that road," said Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata). "It's desperately needed for a whole bunch of reasons, but most of all because of safety."
After the Hughesville ceremony, the next stop was Lusby, where Ehrlich highlighted $5.9 million for three Calvert County road projects. One is a $4.4 million resurfacing project of an eight-mile stretch of Route 2/4 between Dowell Road and Route 765, which is underway and slated for completion this fall. The state will also spend $1 million to begin the engineering work for a Route 2/4 connection to the Southern Lusby Connector Road as well as $500,000 to plan Lusby streetscape enhancements.
In La Plata, the governor toasted a streetscape project along the road to the new town hall. The $1 million project in the center of the Charles County seat will extend Centennial Street from La Grange Avenue to Maple Avenue and add on-street parking, sidewalks and landscaping. Construction began this year, and town officials scurried to throw hay over the muddy site before the governor's arrival Friday afternoon.
More than a dozen buildings in this small section of downtown La Plata were destroyed or seriously damaged during the tornado of April 2002, said Town Manager Doug Miller.
"This is where the tornado just demolished us so badly," La Plata Mayor William Eckman said. "And it's coming back bigger and better."
Nancy Gasparovic, the owner of Title Professionals, a company on La Grange that was damaged by the tornado, said she is willing to put up with the Centennial expansion plowing past her office.
"I'm excited about the future of downtown La Plata and having La Grange be a hub," she said. "I'm excited enough to give up my front yard and my side yard."
La Grange ends at the nearly completed town hall, a three-floor, 15,000-square-foot building that is scheduled to open Dec. 13. It has risen quickly -- in December a contract was signed to design and build it -- to make room for the expansion of Civista Medical Center. The hospital required the land where the current town hall stands on Garrett Avenue.
Several other brick office buildings have sprung up along La Grange or been renovated since the tornado.
"You tend to be awestruck," said Ehrlich, "with what's been done here in two years."