Public weighs in on Route 219 improvement project

GRANTSVILLE, Md. – Maryland transportation officials listened to the public’s opinions on the U.S. Route 219 Improvement Project at a joint public hearing Monday night at Grantsville Elementary School.

Three possible options were discussed Monday night – all involving the improvement of Route 219 between its interchange with Interstate 68 in Grantsville and Old Salisbury Road, which is approximately 1.4 miles north of the I-68/Route 219 interchange.

That 1.4-mile stretch of two-lane road, which includes an intersection with U.S. Route 40 Alternate, represents approximately half the total length of Route 219 between its interchange with I-68 and the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, according to maps shown at Monday’s hearing.

“It’s an important step in the continuing effort to connect Somerset and Johnstown to I-68, which is part of the continuing process to create an infrastructure to generate greater prosperity in our region,” Henry Cook, president of Somerset Trust Co., said before Monday night’s hearing.

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk – who was one of several people who provided official testimony Monday night regarding their opinions on the project – agreed.

“We see a great economic development tool here – a great tool to get traffic through our area and through western Maryland,” he said.

Officials from the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration have narrowed the options for the project down to three finalists, nicknamed Alternatives 2, 3 and 4 at Monday’s hearing. (Alternative 1, making no changes at all, was also presented as a baseline for comparison.)

Alternative 2 proposed widening the existing alignment of Route 219 between the I-68 interchange and Old Salisbury Road by adding two 12-foot-wide travel lanes, one in each direction. Route 219, under this alternative, would transition back to a two-lane highway at Old Salisbury Road. Dedicated right-turn lanes would be maintained at the Pilot Travel Center in Grantsville and at the intersection of Route 219 and Route 40 Alternate.

Alternative 3 would involve adding four new 12-foot-wide travel lanes, two in each direction, to the existing alignment of Route 219.

Just north of the Pilot Travel Center, the existing Route 219 would transition into a two-lane roundabout that would provide access to the travel center – and to a new alignment of Route 219 that would bridge over Route 40 Alternate and continue approximately 1 mile north before rejoining the existing Route 219 at Old Salisbury Road, near the entrance to a proposed Casselman Farm industrial park.

Under this alternative, the existing I-68/Route 219 interchange would remain in use.

Alternative 4 would create a new interchange – replacing the existing intersection between I-68’s ramps and Route 219 with a two-lane roundabout – and a new road alignment that would loop around the Pilot Travel Center as a four-lane divided highway, cross over Route 40 Alternate on a bridge and continue approximately 1 mile north before rejoining the existing Route 219 at Old Salisbury Road.

Also under Alternative 4, the current exit ramp from I-68 westbound to Route 219 would be realigned and lengthened to tie into the new roundabout.

The proposed new alignment in Alternatives 3 and 4 would feature two 12-foot-wide travel lanes in each direction, separated by a raised median.

Project manager Barrett Kiedrowski said officials’ priorities for the project are “to support local and regional economic growth, efficient highway operations for development and community access.” All three alternatives, officials said, include inevitable impacts to historical sites, environmental areas and private property.

Hearing officer Tony Crawford said the project is already fully funded. In June 2015, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced $90 million in funding for design, right-of-way acquisition and construction to realign Route 219 between I-68 and the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

Vatavuk testified that he and Cook – both members of the Greater Cumberland Committee’s North-South Appalachian Highway Coalition, he said – supported Alternative 4.

“We need a limited-access highway between here and Somerset,” Vatavuk said, noting that the 11-mile extension of Route 219 between Somerset and Meyersdale is scheduled to open in 2018.

When that section of highway opens, the only section of Route 219 between I-68 and the Pennsylvania-Maryland border that won’t be a four-lane limited-access highway will be the 5 miles between Meyersdale and Maryland, North-South Appalachian Highway Coalition coordinator David Moe said in August.

“If you get your section done,” he told Maryland officials, “we think it will be more incentive for the state of Pennsylvania to get the last 5 miles (between Meyersdale and the Maryland-Pennsylvania border) done … and we can all live happily ever after.”

Tom Sheehan of Garrett County urged officials during his testimony to consider the project’s economic context.

“If I have a preference, it’s for Alternative 2, but I came tonight to talk about the big picture, which I think has been overlooked,” Sheehan said.

That big picture, he said, was the Continental 1 corridor – a proposed 1,500-mile international freeway route from Toronto to Miami that, according to plans presented on the Continental 1 website, would run for part of its length along Route 219 in western Pennsylvania.

Continental 1 is intended to improve international trade, according to the project’s website – meaning that, if the route is completed, a significant portion of its traffic would be trucks hauling heavy loads, Sheehan said. The roundabout included in Alternatives 3 and 4, he argued, would slow such traffic significantly.

“I think Alternatives 3 and 4 are awful, terrible, bad and every other synonym I can think of because of that traffic circle idea,” Sheehan said. “Coming down out of Pennsylvania, it’s a freeway-style system that suddenly terminates in a traffic circle. What a terrible idea!”

Sheehan said he supported Alternative 2 because “it can be constructed in a short, finite period of time,” leaving the possibility of future expansion of Continental 1 open for the future.

Bill Orner of Grantsville, meanwhile, said he supported Alternative 4 for more personal reasons.

“Alternative 2 is going to take my house and part of my business,” he said. Alternative 3, he added, would place a roundabout right next to his house, causing a nuisance.

Officials said they will take the testimony they heard Monday night into consideration as they refine their plans and choose which of the three alternatives will be built. Final location and design approval is expected to come sometime this summer, with construction beginning sometime in 2018.

Some, however, are already looking to the future, considering the next piece of the puzzle. Cook noted that Route 219 will remain a two-lane road in Maryland between Old Salisbury Road and the Pennsylvania border, even after the project discussed Monday is completed.

“Obviously, the critical piece now – the Pennsylvania line (extension), the Meyersdale bypass – we have to find funding vehicles,” Cook said. “Hopefully, with these promises of infrastructure funding coming out of Washington, these projects get some attention.”

 

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Laura K.O. Smith ’05: Sailing to the End of the World and Back

The life of a full-time adventurer on the high seas

In high school, most people have posters of bands in their room, but Laura K.O. Smith ’05’s tastes hewed more anachronistic: “I laid out my desk like I thought a ship captain’s desk would look from the late 1700s.”

Growing up, Smith was enthralled by young-adult adventure novels, particularly The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, the story of a 19th-century teenager thrust on a harrowing sea voyage.

Continuing her lifelong romance with the ocean, Smith and her husband, Federico Guerrero, run Quixote Expeditions, a 2-year-old business that sails approximately nine hardy tourists from Chile’s Cape Horn across the perilous Drake Passage and on to the icy monoliths of Antarctica.

“A lot of people think we’re crazy,” Smith says. “It’s sort of become a new normal for us.”

The couple’s boat, the Ocean Tramp, is a double-masted rig that measures roughly 65 feet long. The pair, who met while working for an oil-services company, bought the boat after its previous owner, legendary American mountaineer Charlie Porter, died in 2014.

Ocean Tramp’s inboard engine helps to escape wayward ice, while an aluminum-fortified hull adds to its defenses. Smith and Guerrero got the idea for their business after traveling with friends to Antarctica in 2013.

As the expedition leader, Smith charts all tourist activities during the short Antarctic sailing season — December through March. Guerrero, a licensed captain, pilots the craft.

The couple made two trips last season but plan six sojourns this year. While the trips are billed as pleasure cruises, the couple give a free berth to a scientist, in most cases a biologist, whose research brings an educational component to the expedition.

Previously, passengers have helped scientists collect water samples and log bird and mammal sightings; a forthcoming trip will include a researcher who studies whether whales can smell.

Trips last 25 days, two weeks of which are spent getting to and from the Antarctic Peninsula. All hands help with the sails, chop potatoes, and wash dishes.

The continent beguiles in a number of ways, Smith says, noting in particular the region’s monochromatic splendor.

“Antarctica [has an] interesting lack of color,” she says. “You essentially have blue, white, and shades of gray — [it’s]almost completely devoid of reds and greens and yellows.

“And there’s something about the icebergs — [it’s] sort of like watching clouds,” she adds. “They’re all different shapes, and it never grows old.”

Smith’s life on the water dates to her childhood, when she took part in summer sailing camps guiding dinghies across Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake.

After majoring in geological engineering at Princeton, she worked for Schlumberger, looking for crude in the waters off nations such as India, Norway, Qatar, and Angola.

Now, Quixote Expeditions keeps her afloat for up to 140 days per year. Smith and her husband also sail tourists to the Falkland Islands and the craggy Isla de los Estados, in the Argentine portion of Tierra del Fuego.

The couple live aboard Ocean Tramp when they’re not leading tours, docking in Ushuaia, Argentina, the so-called “end of the world” on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

“Look out one side of the boat and you see the Ushuaia city lights with the mountains behind; look the other way and it’s the Beagle Channel, with Chile behind,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing place to call your office.”

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50 Wonderful Winter Marketing Ideas

Putting your house up for sale this winter?

Here are 50 great ideas from Zillow. From creating a list of winter service providers (cough, cough Taylor-Made DCV&S) to creative infographics- there are some great ideas here!

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Garrett Chamber of Commerce releases top legislative priorities

MCHENRY — The Garrett County Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 legislative agenda includes a focus on tourism, infrastructure, education, health care, the business climate and economic and community development.

“Our committee and board of directors do a fantastic job developing a legislative agenda that helps me focus on specific issues and provides a guide of legislation for which to watch,” Nicole Christian, the chamber’s president and CEO, said.

Chamber officials plan to urge lawmakers to continue working with Pennsylvania and West Virginia to expedite the process for completing the U.S. Route 219 and U.S. 220 portions of the North/South Appalachian Highway.

As a total corridor, it is projected to create 10,000 permanent and 20,000 construction and construction-related jobs in the region, officials have said.

Portions of the U.S. 219 Somerset to Meyersdale project are on track to open next year.

The chamber’s top priorities, in order, are:

• Revising the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) Program for reimbursement to counties for state-owned lands.

• Increasing tourism promotion funding to $11 million.

• Supporting the creation of the Rural Development Incentive Program.

• Supporting a pro-business environment in the state.

“The chamber’s Legislative Affairs Committee spends several months discussing what issues to include in the agenda and which ones to make our top priorities,” Shane Grady, chair of the chamber’s legislative affairs committee, said. “With only one senator (George Edwards) and one delegate (Wendell Beitzel) representing Garrett County in the legislature, it is important that we are vocal about our priorities and that we are aggressive with our advocacy efforts in order to make an impact.”

The General Assembly will consider more than 3,000 pieces of legislation during the session, Christian said.

To view the chamber’s legislative agenda in it’s entirety visit the website www.visitdeepcreek.com/pages/Legislative.

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Garrett officials delay fracking study

OAKLAND — Garrett County’s commissioners have decided not to conduct a study on the economic impacts of fracking.

The commissioners recently rejected all bids for the proposed study, which would have explored possible detriments to tourism, property values and outdoor recreation opportunities likely to occur if hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production is allowed in Western Maryland.

With the Maryland General Assembly expected to take up legislation that could ban fracking or extend a current moratorium on the process, officials decided it wasn’t the right time for the study.

“If the legislature passes a moratorium versus a ban, or takes no action, there will still be sufficient time to do the study before any permits are issued,” said Kevin Null, county administrator, as he summed up the views of the commissioners.

The study would take at least six months to complete and wouldn’t be ready prior to legislative action. The commissioners also said the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Commerce are withholding funding until the legislature’s action is known.

More than 60 elected officials in Maryland have signed a letter of support for a statewide fracking ban. Not on that list are members of the District 1 legislative delegation that represents Garrett and Allegany counties — Sen. George Edwards and Dels. Wendell Beitzel, Jason Buckel and Mike McKay.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, is expected to introduce legislation to ban the process. A moratorium is in place until October.

Marcellus shale formations throughout the eastern United States harbor large natural gas reserves. Shale is a sedimentary rock formation that extends underground through about 95,000 square miles in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

In Maryland, the shale formations are found only in Allegany and Garrett counties, with the bulk of the formations in Garrett County.

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State Panel Puts Fracking Regulations on Hold in Maryland

A panel of lawmakers in Maryland has reportedly asked the state Department of the Environment (MDE) to delay implementing rules governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

According to reports, the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) sent a letter to the MDE last Thursday. Lawmakers on the committee said they wanted more time to study the agency’s proposed rules, which were scheduled to take effect the next day.

Only two western panhandle counties in Maryland — Allegany and Garrett — overlie the Marcellus Shale, a basin which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates could contain as much as 2.383 Tcf of technically recoverable natural gas.

The Maryland General Assembly, which meets for 90 days during its regular session, is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 11 and adjourn on April 10. The session could also be extended until May 10.

The MDE submitted its proposed fracking regulations to the AELR last September. The proposed rules included a 2,000-foot setback for well pads from private drinking water wells and the surface water intake of public drinking water systems and springs; one year of baseline water monitoring; well integrity and pressure testing; and requirements covering air quality, emergency response, wastewater management, well plugging and bonding.

Fracking opponents are pushing for an outright ban. A two-year moratorium on the practice, which took effect after lawmakers passed SB 409 in 2015, is set to expire on Oct. 1.

“Our neighbors talk about putting their properties on the market if fracking is permitted,” Friends of Deep Creek Lake, an environmental group opposed to fracking, told the AELR at a hearing last month. “Such actions would be devastating to the local economy and in the long term would not be offset by fracking-related revenues.”

Supporters of oil and gas development in Maryland aren’t thrilled with the MDE’s proposed regulations, either.

“We are an industry that has a proven record of providing environmental and economic benefits,” Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said last month. “As written, a number of the proposed regulations are overly restrictive and would undermine our proven track record on safety proven through the development of millions of wells.

“We need policies that protect jobs and investment in Western Maryland, and these new regulations would take us in the wrong direction.”

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Deep Creek Lake and Garrett County, Maryland Experience Highest Tourism Revenue in State

In the first quarter of fiscal year 2017 (July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017), Garrett County experienced the highest increase in the state in tourism sales tax revenues, nearly twice the tourism increases posted by the state of Maryland.  The Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, the designated tourism marketing organization for the county, attributes much of the increase to the Chamber’s aggressive marketing plan with concentrated efforts and new ad strategies.

According to the Maryland Office of Tourism, in the first three months of Fiscal Year 2017 (July, August & September 2016), Maryland grew tourism sales tax revenues 3.0%, while Garrett County grew tourism sales tax revenues 5.8% during the same time period. Maryland grew lodging sales tax code collections 5.5% in the first three months of FY17, while Garrett County grew lodging sales tax collections 7.8%.

Garrett County experienced similar increases in fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2016). According to the Maryland Office of Tourism, in fiscal year 2016, Maryland grew tourism sales tax revenues 6.4%, while Garrett County grew tourism sales tax revenues 7.0% during the same time period. Maryland grew lodging sales tax code collections 6.3% in FY16 while Garrett County grew lodging sales tax collections 9%.

“We are very pleased to see a strong first quarter for FY17 as we approach the winter season that is extremely weather dependent,” said Nicole Christian, president & CEO of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. “It is exciting to be leading the state in tourism growth but we are very aware that we have to continue our robust and innovative marketing efforts to remain competitive. We hope the State Office of Tourism will continue their efforts as well and that the Governor will maintain his support of this important industry by increasing tourism promotion funding for the Tourism Development Board.”

2016 has been a record year for tourism in the Deep Creek Lake area and Garrett County, Maryland with a 6.3% increase in county accommodations sales, a 19.3% increase in heads on beds, a 2.3% increase in sales tax collections and a 23% increase in visitors to the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce’s website, visitdeepcreek.com.

 

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