The Maryland State Highway Administration's long-delayed plan to rebuild parts of Route 24 through Rocks State Park is back on track and could begin as early as mid-May, but the first phase has been scaled back considerably from what highway planners proposed several years ago.
The anticipated work will still require, however, closing Route 24 near the Deer Creek bridge and detours will be in effect all summer and into the fall, SHA spokesman Charles Gischlar said Monday.
For many residents, their first chance to look at the latest plan for the project in any detail will be Wednesday during a public information meeting on the SHA's request for a permit to temporarily divert Deer Creek in the construction area.
Held up for more than four years because of environmental and other concerns, the first of what could be several phases for the Route 24 project encompasses about 1,800 feet of Route 24 between Rocks Chrome Hill Road and St. Clair Bridge Road, according to SHA construction documents.
The project will involve stabilizing the banks of Deer Creek where it is undermining the roadway. Unlike a previous plan floated in 2009-10, however, the existing alignment of Route 24 won't change and there will be no excavations or fills on the landward - or west - side of the roadway.
In the areas of greatest bank erosion, two imbricated – layered – stone retaining walls will be built between the road and the stream bank, according to construction documents. A new drainage structure will be built and other drainage improvements are to be made as needed, according to SHA documents. What the SHA calls "non-structural rock bench[es]," consisting of boulder clusters and rip-rap, will be installed at two other locations, according to the SHA engineering plans.
Other than rebuilding the roadway in the areas where the retaining walls and new drainage structures are planned, the only other major changes planned for Route 24 in the project area are some repaving, new guardrails, utility pole relocations and the regrading of one of a roadside parking that is prone to flooding.
"The road is really being undermined," Gischlar said. "We've come to a good conclusion. The project has been redesigned. There will be a lot of native vegetation added to help stabilize the banks at the south end. They'll be using real boulders for the rock benches."
Where the two retaining walls will be built, the course of Deer Creek will need to be dammed and temporarily diverted, which also will involve temporary stabilization structures on both the east and west banks, according to SHA documents.
Public meeting Wednesday
In order to work in and around the stream, SHA and its contractors must first secure permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has scheduled a public information meeting on the permit request this Wednesday, April 16, at the North Harford High School Auditorium, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Federal regulations to protect fish spawning habitat prohibit working in the stream between March 1 and May 31.
The area of the planned work is one of two along Route 24 between Sharon and St. Clair Bridge roads where the SHA said previously it had identified severe stream bank erosion problems that threatened to undermine the roadway.
The area scheduled for the upcoming work was designated as Section A by the SHA. Another section, between Sharon Road and Stirrup Run, designated as Section G, is on indefinite hold because it has not been funded, according to SHA documents. Sections B-F are considered less of a threat from erosion.
The Section A project will get under way in June and is estimated to take up to six months to complete. The extent of the work involved necessitates closing the road to traffic during most of that time, according to the SHA.
Rocks State Park will remain open throughout this summer's work, and people will be able to access everything from either end of Route 24, except the small construction area.
The closing will mean lengthy detours during the busiest time of the year for one of the state's most popular parks. Despite being only two lanes and having a 25 mph speed limit through the park, the affected highway is also a major route connecting the Bel Air area with northern Harford County, one used by daily commuters, school buses, farm vehicles, trucks and area residents.
Gischlar said SHA hopes the work can be finished well before the end of this year. He also noted that much of the pace of the work, however, is weather dependent.
The recommended detour will be Route 23 west to Route 164 and then north to Route 24, Gischlar said.
"Obviously, the locals know other roads they can use that will make the detour shorter," he added.
Road relocation protests
When the Route 24 project was first proposed in late 2009, SHA said Route 24 should be relocated 20 feet farther away from Deer Creek, necessitating major cuts into the slopes and rock outcroppings next to the highway, as well as the construction of retaining walls.
The plan at the time was to do Sections A and then G over two summers and then work on the remaining sections between them, where the stream bank erosion was considered less severe.
Rocks area residents and environmental groups objected to such massive construction activity in an area which has been little changed for decades, noting that in addition to disturbing the hillsides and removing hundreds of mature trees, Deer Creek would continue to work its way toward the relocated roadway. Some likened the plan to a scorched earth campaign.
Other concerns were expressed about the impact the closure of Route 24 would have on residents of the area, both in terms of getting to and from their homes and the rest of the county, as well as the likelihood the alternate routes through their communities would become clogged with park and other through traffic.
Amid the public furor, SHA backed away from moving forward until alternatives could be considered. In February 2010, the agency also appointed a committee made up of citizens and state and county representatives which has been holding regular meetings during the intervening four years, the latest of which was in March, according to SHA records.
According to the request for proposals, the SHA sent out to prospective contractors last August. No final decision has made on one of three options for Section G: keeping the existing route, relocating Route 24 10 feet to the west or relocating the highway 20 feet to the west, the latter being what was recommended in 2009.
According to the most recent Maryland Consolidated Transportation Program covering the five-year period 2013-18, SHA has spent about $3.2 million on engineering and right-of-way acquisition for the Route 24 project, whose estimated cost for all sections, A-G, is $13.3 million.