Commentary by Bob Schaller, Dept. of Economic Development, St. Mary's County
Last week my wife and I visited the new Navy Federal Credit Union just south of Kohl's on Rt 235. It's a nice facility that also offers great member services. Upon leaving the bonus was turning left on the access road "Corporate Way" that leads to the Kohl's center. And another left puts you on FDR Boulevard which takes you past new residential development and to the new Victory Woods Senior Apartments scheduled to open in a month. All accessible without getting back out on Rt. 235. In fact, a Victory Woods resident will be able to walk to church, shopping, pharmacy, medical center, a bank, and soon a restaurant or two. When FDR Blvd is fully constructed, the neighborhood connector road including a hiker-biker trail will create an entire network of new development off the main road. If you've driven Prince Frederick Blvd off Rt. 231 behind WalMart that empties at the new pool and Bayside Toyota above Calvert Memorial Hospital you see what's possible. As they say, where roads go so goes development. Look at the County's development pattern since Rt 235 was expanded following BRAC. The commercial development march north of Lexington Park into California, with Park Place (Olive Garden, Red Robin, Texas Roadhouse, SAIC) the latest addition. And there's more to come with Tractor Supply and other development at and north of the Rt 4 intersection.
Regional economics research illustrates the effects from transportation infrastructure, including increased trade activity, new businesses, residences, and other development activity, and multiplier effects from expanded economic activity. The connection between transport and economic growth also has immediate linkages in the form of accessibility and cohesion. Improvements in transport infrastructure increases levels of accessibility between places, thus facilitating an increase in spatial interaction and economic activity. As neighborhoods, towns, and entire communities are brought closer together as a result of improved transport, these places can become more cohesive across political, social, and cultural dimensions. This increased cohesiveness can lead to even further economic impact.
So connections matter, economically and otherwise. Rivers were once our highways. That's how we were founded, and river travel dominated life and commerce here until last century. Just drive to water's edge communities throughout the County and observe from this vantage point the gradual move inland as road travel improved with time. Then the roads crossed the rivers, first across the Potomac to Virginia, then across the Patuxent to Calvert County (twice). Only one of these crossings, the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge, starts in St. Mary's County. The socio-economic impact of the bridge is profound. Over 3,000 workers at NAS Patuxent River cross the bridge daily. That's the entire employment of St. Mary's County Public Schools, our 2nd largest employer. Look at the development of southern Calvert in Solomons and Lusby areas. Did you know that half the customers and staff at Olive Garden and Ruddy Duck cross the bridge?
That's why improvements along Chancellor's Run Road, Great Mills Road, Washington and Fenwick Streets in Leonardtown, and Triangle Road that runs parallel to Rt 5 in Charlotte Hall where Food Lion and the new Charlotte Hall Square are, are so important. Sometime in our future, the completion of FDR Blvd and cross county connectors between Routes 235 and 5 including Pegg Road extension to Callaway and Lawrence Hayden Road from St. John's Road, behind the Airport and to St. Andrew's Church Road, are vital to continued socio-economic development. Billingsley Road in Charles County is more of an industrial cross county connector example, but bringing together St. Charles and the Blue Crabs Stadium, a future high school, and other community assets are critical to Charles County's future. Of course, in Montgomery and Price Georges Counties, the 18-mile Intercounty Connector (ICC) Project is estimated at more than $2.5 billion to complete. In comparison, our county's entire highways capital improvement budget over the next 6 years is $32 million. That includes asphalt overlay and other maintenance of existing roads. This level of spending would build less than 1/4 mile of the ICC. Land acquisition, wetlands mitigation, and stormwater management drive construction costs to levels that users must share in the payments through a toll system. Building roads isn't cheap.
And not all road projects are beneficial economically, at least in the short run. The storyline of the popular 2006 Pixar movie, Cars, tells what happens to towns that are bypassed by the interstate. Closer to home, the Rt 5 bypass around Leonardtown 20yrs ago, and more recently around Hughesville, forces these towns to reinvent themselves after years of economic hardship. But that's progress, never a straight line.
Back to the short access road from Navy Federal to Kohl's, try it sometime. As you probably have the north spur of FDR Blvd behind First Colony that meanders all the way to WalMart. This grid pattern is more of the design in our future. Access, cohesion, and development through roads bring a more open, less cul-de-sacish community. And that's good for everyone.