State launches effort to clarify, streamline highway access permits for new developments

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By Tom LoBianco

Maryland developers want easier access to state highways, and a group empanelled by Gov. Martin O'Malley hopes to provide some answers by the end of the summer.

O'Malley called together the task force last month on the heels of growing concerns among developers who said that securing access to state roads for their potential projects has become increasingly convoluted. Some also raised objections to new state road access guidelines approved in the fall.

"Are there ways we can design a process that's more predictable, more transparent and more helpful for Maryland businesses?" asked Maryland Business and Economic Development Secretary Christian Johansson, who was appointed to be chairman of the task force.

A key goal of state government is to help make it easier to do business in Maryland, Johansson said, and concerns about the state's highway permitting process had grown over the last year or so.

For developers considering projects along state roads and highways, securing access for traffic to come in and out of their developments is considered a key ingredient to success. Many major retailers will not consider committing to anchor a site unless they are assured that potential customers will have easy, direct opportunities to come in and out.

The 22-member panel includes local public works directors, developers, traffic engineers and state leaders. [Click here to see the entire membership list]

The group will consider how to streamline permitting while still meeting requirements set in place over the last few decades. That could include starting an online tracking system for those with permit applications under consideration, but substantive changes to requirements would require either administrative or legislative action.

"Maryland's transportation network is a critical tool for local businesses and an essential driver for the State's economy," said Governor Martin O'Malley in a statement when the administration announced the task force. "The Highway Access Permit Process is the key to providing new businesses and developments access to that network.

"While this process is important to maintaining the safety and operational integrity of our highway system, this new Review Group has been tasked with revamping the process to ensure that it is business-friendly by making it transparent, timely and predictable," the governor said.

One panel member, however, said that the real genesis of the group was in response to protests over changes to the state highway permitting process which were finalized in the fall despite concerns from developers.

"State highway told us they promulgated regulations to formalize their existing practices in calculating mitigation," said Kathleen Maloney, lobbyist for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland and a member of the panel.

"We felt the regulations broadened their authority to require offsite mitigation," she said. "That was concerning."

The Homebuilders Association reached out to Baltimore County Delegate James E. Malone with the hopes of getting legislation to help, but he suggested working with the State Highway Administration, Maloney said.

A few months later, Maloney was added to the group that will weigh these changes and the overall process.

Andy Scott, Maryland Department of Transportation’s liaison to Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development and a member of the panel, said that while the State Highway Administration’s changes may have contributed to the formation of the group, there were broader concerns raised by many other developers over the years which will be tackled.

Getting access to state roads "has become complicated," he said.

"Ultimately we control access to the highways to maintain a safe and functioning highway system," Scott said. "Even something that simple is very involved. We're dealing with engineering, site distances, whether we're creating a traffic weave that is unsafe. There are a whole host of engineering issues to make sure that it's safe."

The three factors which have broadly contributed to the increased difficulty in gaining highway access are evolutions in: engineering criteria, environmental laws and local laws which require developers to invest in public infrastructure.

The group will meet four times over the summer, starting May 19 and plans to have its recommendations ready by September 15.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.
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