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Big I-95 project planned in Harford faces long delay

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Although workers building express toll lanes have become a common sight on I-95 in eastern Baltimore County, Harford County residents should not expect to see the same thing on their side of the Little Gunpowder Falls for many years, state highways officials say.

A $2 billion Maryland Transportation Authority project to expand and add toll lanes to Section 200 of I-95 – between just north of the Route 43 interchange in White Marsh and the interchange with Route 22 near Aberdeen – has been put on hold until the MdTA can obtain the appropriate funding, John Sales, public affairs manager, said Thursday.

"As far as we're concerned we're not intending to build those toll lanes on Section 200 any time soon until we get that funding in place," Sales explained.

The MdTA is primarily funded by toll revenue collected from the bridges, tunnels and toll roads the agency owns and operates around the state.

Officials have obtained permits in the past year from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers to perform "system preservation" projects on the existing section of highway, according to both the Corps and MdTA.

System preservation projects include general maintenance and repair efforts such as repairs to bridges and overpasses, road resurfacing, cleaning and painting infrastructure and more, Sales explained.

"We could go ahead and move forward with those projects, and we would have funding in place for those projects because we would have those permits," Sales said.

Traffic relief

The more ambitious plan to build express toll lanes over the 50-year-old interstate highway's most congested section in Harford is dead in the water.

Officials with the MdTA held a number of meetings with local, state and federal officials – and local residents – between 2005 and 2008 as they worked to determine the "preferred alternative" for improving I-95 in Harford County, according to the project's website.

A 2011 study conducted under the auspices of the National Environmental Protection Act indicated building express toll lanes would be the preferred alternative for Section 200, Sales said.

Section 200 opened in 1963-64 and has expanded from four lanes in both directions to eight lanes heading north and south, according to the project's website.

Phased construction of express toll lanes on Section 100 of I-95 – between the I-95/895 split north of the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore and just north of the Route 43 interchange in White Marsh – began in 2006 and is expected to end in 2014, Sales said.

"It's basically going to have about eight miles of express toll lanes," he said of Section 100.

The section will still have "general-purpose, non-tolled lanes" which motorists can use without paying tolls. Sales said the toll lanes "would certainly give you a more reliable travel time."

The same format was planned in Section 200, with two toll lanes in each direction, in addition to non-toll lanes. Sales said a new park-and-ride lot would be built near Route 24 in the Bel Air area, augmenting the existing Route 24 lot.

A new lot would also be built at Route 152 in Joppa to replace the existing park and ride, which would be affected by the highway widening.

Construction of those lots would not proceed until the highway work is funded and approved in the state's transportation budget.

Preliminary activities

Although the funding is not in place, the MdTA is working with the Corps of Engineers to obtain a permit under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act with the belief the toll lanes and other upgrades in Harford will eventually happen.

The Corps must review construction projects which are expected to have an impact on surrounding wetlands and waterways.

"That's where we're regulating any fill material that that goes in the waters of the United States, fill material that is placed or discharged into the waters of the United States, and that includes wetlands," Joseph DaVia, chief of Maryland Section Northern in the Corps' Baltimore District, said during a recent interview.

The Corps of Engineers released a public notice earlier this year, seeking public comment on the Section 200 project. The public comment period began Feb. 8 and ended Monday.

Chris Augsburger, spokesman for the Baltimore District, said Thursday that Corps officials would send the public comments to the MdTA. The agency then has the opportunity to respond, and the Corps would decide whether to issue a permit based on information provided by the applicant.

Community concerns

During a March 4 meeting, members of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Council expressed concerns about the I-95 project gearing back up after they had not heard any news about it for several years.

They were worried about the impact on the environment, their communities and property owned by Trinity Lutheran Church, which is just north of the Route 152/I-95 interchange and is home to one of the county's largest congregations.

In an interview the day after the meeting, Augsburger and DaVia told The Aegis the MdTA had applied for the permit and provided a copy of the public notice.

Church officials reported to the Joppa-Joppatowne council they had been approached by the MdTA about purchasing some of their property for the park and ride.

Sales said Thursday the agency had talked with church leaders in 2005, but negotiations "fell through."

"We're not going to be pursuing that Trinity Church property for the park and ride," he said.

Sales said the Section 200 project is low on the MdTA's priority list, behind projects such as completing Section 100, replacing the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County, taking over operation of the Inter-County Connector in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, cleaning and painting the westbound span of the Bay Bridge and ongoing system preservation projects.

"It's projects like that, we're certainly looking to move forward with, and again, all that funding does come from toll revenue," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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