Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of a new highway that dramatically changed the face of central Harford County.
Two and a half years after construction began, on Nov. 23, 1987, Harford elected officials and business leaders celebrated the opening of the new Route 24, built to better connect drivers traveling from I-95 in southern Harford County with the Bel Air Bypass in the heart of the county.
The $22 million, 6.3-mile, four-lane stretch was expected to carry 20,000 vehicles a day and take a "great deal of pressure" off the old, two-lane Route 24, which was renamed Route 924.
Called the "Relocated Route 24," the new road was expected to "triple the capacity of the corridor from Bel Air to I-95," according to articles published at the time in The Aegis.
Those 20,000 vehicles a day projected back in 1987 are a far cry from how many cars use Route 24 today, a quarter century later. In some parts, traffic counts are more than double those projections, at more than 40,000 cars per day.
During the grand opening ceremony, then-Del. William H. Cox was credited as the single biggest influence in getting the road built, working most of his 18 years in the legislature on the project.
One highway official even joked that it could one day be named, posthumously, for Cox, which is unlikely at this late date, since the road was later named the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway and Cox is alive and well.
So many people were leaving Harford County to go to Baltimore to work, we "got the thought that this thing has to happen," Cox said earlier this week about the genesis of the Route 24 project. "What had happened in Harford County, a lot of people had migrated here."
Those people who came to live here, however, were still leaving Harford to work, and the old Route 24, now Route 924, a two-lane roadway, couldn't handle all the traffic. The development envelope, the county's designated growth area, had been established, and the road system needed to accommodate the growth.
"That main corridor was meant to handle development in the county and for the most part, it does handle it," Jim Martin, president of Ward Properties, said. Ward Properties is a major developer in the corridor served by Route 24.
"It certainly took it from basically what was farmland to becoming a central business hub in the county," Martin said. "If you look at 24, there's a Constant Friendship hub, a Bel Air South hub and a Route 1 hub. Route 24 created that intermediary commercial area where you have amenities for the homes that sprang up in that area."
It was estimated the Route 24 project would cost $20 million to build, and the construction contract was bid at $17.2 million. The final price tag was close to $22 million, however.
Much of it was funded by a gasoline tax increase passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 1982.
"It was tough in an election year having a gas tax put through," Cox said. "But a lot of times, if you're going to do something, you don't worry about being elected."
Despite the $5 million overrun, state highway officials said then they were more than satisfied the public would receive its money's worth.
Why the extra $5 million?
The first problem was soil stabilization. Large portions of the soil where the road was to be built had a high mica content, a condition that attracts and retains water. To fix it, several underground drain pipes had to be installed to take away groundwater. In addition, large quantities of lime, to change the condition of the soil, had to be added. That cost about $2 million and pushed the project's completion date from late 1987 to summer 1988.
The other cost overruns came form a defect in the treated aggregate materials used in the sub-pavement. The substance was delivered as ordered, but "just did not harden," according to newspaper reports. That required another 1 ½ inches of blacktop, at a cost of $1 million.
Adding in $7 million in right-of-way acquisition and $1.4 million on engineering costs, the project's total price tag was more than $30 million.