County Comment: The HEPMPO and What You Should Know

County Comment
The HEPMPO and What You Should Know
by Norman Bassett, Public Information Officer
Washington County, Maryland

The Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization (HEPMPO): What's that?
When you drive in Washington County, Berkeley County, Jefferson County, (and a portion of Franklin County, PA), especially on interstate or federal highways, the HEPMPO plays a large part in your getting to your destination.
Robert Gordon is Director of the HEPMPO, and spends time between offices in Hagerstown and Martinsburg, West Virginia, overseeing the planning organization that functions under the auspices of the Washington County Board of County Commissioners.
HEPMPO is responsible for transportation planning in the three-state region, and assesses needs for the I-81/I-70 corridors, as well as U.S. highways such as Route 340, and some state highways like West Virginia's Route 9. That planning helps provide federal and state funding for road and bridge improvements.
"As part of the federal process, we are required to maintain a transportation improvement program, which is essentially a list of projects four to six years out," Gordon said, "and we incorporate a West Virginia element, which incorporates Berkeley and Jefferson Counties, and a Maryland Element, which incorporates Washington County. Then we are required to do a long-range transportation plan, which is a 20 to 25 year transportation plan."
The current plan, through 2025, must be updated within the next two years, to meet federal regulations.
We'll take another look at our whole region, what's been occurring, then develop a long-range plan for those purposes," he said.
Funding for the transportation projects, like the recent widening of I-81 in West Virginia, is on an 80-10-10 matching basis, with the states providing 10% and the local governments providing 10%.
Gordon said that the prime mover behind transportation planning is population growth and the increased demand on roads and infrastructure. Traffic gridlocks on the interstates that intersect in Washington County are an almost daily occurrence, and improvement of these roads is vital, Gordon said
Will I-81 be widened? "We feel that is a need, the issue there is funding for construction," Gordon said, " The State of Maryland has an ongoing study on what upgrades need to be there."
Simply widening I-81 on its run of approximately 10 miles through the County is not the major area of concern, Gordon said.
"The biggest caveat with I-81 to is the bridge that goes over the Potomac River," he said," the cost of that project is very significant. That's ultimately going to be the real high-ticket item."
Interstate 70 has also become an item of concern due to high traffic volume. That thoroughfare will also be studied and recommendations for improvements will be made as part of the 25-year plan update.
"You're looking at additional lanes to accommodate that congestion," Gordon said. "That being said, those additional lanes for that length of highway, especially on an interstate, are not easy to fund. It's very expensive; the construction is not easy to do. Generally you have to try and widen it in the median portion. That's the best option, because you don't have to take additional right-of-way. If you have to take additional right-of-way the costs goes up from there. Those types of projects are very costly."
Another important roadway is West Virginia Route 9 that runs from Berkeley County, through Jefferson County and links with U.S. 340 at Charlestown, travels through Harper's Ferry, into Virginia and then into the southern tip of Washington County before ending at I-270 in Frederick, Md. That link crosses both the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers.
"This is also an area of concern, but is not in our funded plan because of the cost," Gordon said. "The bridges there go right through the Park Service. Trying to find additional right-of-way there is very difficult. Trying to rebuild that structure in its existing situation would require totally shutting that highway down"
"Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia understand the implications of that. We have to look at that again, and hopefully we can move forward with something in the future. We are certainly aware that those issues are there and are trying to push that project forward," Gordon said.
Using traffic pattern analyses, the HEPMPO will look at weak points and bottlenecks in the transportation system and make its long-range projections for funding in the 25-year plan.
As the population of the region grows, the capacity of its roadways must be assessed, and planning for future needs conducted, to assure proper funding from all sources, Gordon said.