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Route 24 changed the face of Harford County 25 years ago

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."

Over bid

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.

10 full intersections

Relocated Route 24, which would for years thereafter be known as New 24, was planned to have 10 full intersections and an additional right in/right out entrance and exit at Tollgate Mall in Bel Air.

"The new road has the dual purpose of providing efficient access to the commercial district of Bel Air while at the same time moving large volumes of through traffic from north of Bel Air to I-95 and points between along the 6.3 mile length of road," according an Aegis article.

The State Highway Administration considered new Route 24 a limited access road, which meant there would be no driveways on the road, nor any commercial accesses.

Five of the intersections were to have traffic lights; the other six were to have stop signs or yield traffic controls.

At the time, C. Robert Olsen, who was the SHA district engineer for Harford and Baltimore counties, said the intersections without traffic lights would be monitored "with the possibility that some or all could eventually have red lights."

Intersections with traffic lights were at the Bel Air Bypass, Boulton Street, Business Route 1and Ring Factory Road near Bel Air, then it would be a wide open drive until the traffic light where Relocated Route 24 intersected with Tollgate Parkway and the old Route 24, near I-95.

The full light at Boulton Street, by Harford Mall, was a last-minute decision.

"We just realized that the point at which were are opening the road [just before Thanksgiving] is getting into the busiest time for the mall," Olsen said in one newspaper article. "We'd just be kidding ourselves if we didn't have the red light there at the time we open."

A quarter century later, the drive along Route 24 is not quite what was planned. The idea was that Route 24 would be a quick shot from I-95 to Bel Air without the interruption of traffic lights. Today, every intersection along that stretch has a full traffic signal, with arrows for turns and delayed greens.

Cox, who served in the House of Delegates from 1971 to 1991 and owns a real estate brokerage in Bel Air, said he would have rather had off and on ramps at the intersections. (Technically, one of those was eventually built, 24 years later, the interchange with Route 924 and Tollgate Parkway in Abingdon, at almost double the cost of building the highway itself.)

"It would have saved a lot of red lights," he said. "But that didn't happen, so had to live with what we have."

A whole new world

For the Ward family business, then run by the late Walter Ward and now by his son, Bob Ward, the entire Festival at Bel Air area "exploded after Route 24 opened, and it took Ward Properties from a purely residential company to a more commercial one," said Martin, who has been with Ward Properties for 20 years.

After selling the Festival property, the Wards developed the three other corners at Route 24 and Bel Air South Parkway – two commercially with Bob Evans, DuClaw and other stores and a professional building on the west side and Bertucci's, Jos. A. Bank and others on the east, and one residentially with Calvert's Walk Apartments.

"It made all those residential communities much more appealing to commuters, which in turn, for the Ward family, on the commercial side, provided a need for professional and service uses, which we were able to piggyback on," Martin said.

The 'old' Route 24

The Aegis called the existing Route 24, to be renumbered Route 924, "the road that nobody wants."

"The idea was to incorporate a portion of the old '24' into the name and still distinguish it from the new road," Olsen, the SHA district engineer, explained.

But there was also the question of who would maintain the road. SHA officials asked the county if the local government would take over the part that ran parallel to the new road.

The state offered $3 million to improve the old part, but the county essentially said "no thanks" to the offer.

The old and new roads were planned to intersect just west of I-95, where the current Route 24 and the new Arundel Road, later to be known as Tollgate Parkway, would cross Relocated Route 24. Tollgate Parkway was being built by developers building residential communities between the end of South Tollgate Road to where it would intersect with Relocated Route 24.

The old 24 was expected to be a local service road, "carrying almost exclusively local traffic," no doubt an irony to many people who drive on Route 924 today and have cited its congestion as the principal reason a proposed Walmart should not be built at 924 and Plumtree Road.

Back then, the county executive, Habern Freeman, and the engineer, Olsen, were having a back and forth about the county's lack of interested in assuming responsibility.

"There is no logical reason why we would want to take it over," said Freeman, who also wanted assurances the $3 million would not only put the road in tip top shape, it would also correct "obvious deficiencies" at intersections and the possible need to widen it to three lanes.

Given how much money the state just put into the new road, Olsen shot back, the county should be more than willing to take over the old one.

"We've put over $20 million into the [Relocated Route 24] project and we're willing to spend $3 million more on the old road," Olsen said. "That really burns me when I hear that kind of talk."

29 years and counting

"It took 29 years to get Route 24 built" proclaimed a headline over a recount of a timeline of the project.

It all started in 1958, when the county requested a study of the possible relocation of Route 924 between Edgewood and Bel Air; a full study was requested in 1965.

In 1974, the county and state exchanged land at Heavenly Waters Park in Bel Air to address anticipated alignment problems for the future road.

By 1980, right-of-way acquisition had begun, design hearings were held and the final route was selected. A four-cent per gallon state gas tax hike was approved in the spring 1982 to pay for the project.

Ground was broken in April 1985 and construction began that spring.

In June 1987, a portion of the road opened so drivers could get to the new Maryland Motor Vehicles Administration Building that was constructed off West MacPhail Road.

Down the road

Route 24 is arguably one of the most congested roads in Harford County, especially during rush hour. What is typically a 10-minute drive on the 6-mile stretch between the Bel Air Bypass and I-95 during off-peak hours can take as long as 30 to 40 minutes in the morning or evening.

Most of the four-lane road was built with a 200-foot right-of-way that includes a 10-foot outside shoulder, a four-foot median shoulder and a 30-foot grass median. While there were no plans to add a third lane in each direction, the project engineer at the time said it was certainly a possibility, without expanding outside the right-of-way, as traffic increased over the next century.

There are, however, differing schools of thought on whether Route 24 will be widened any time soon.

Development in Harford has slowed in the last few years, Ward Properties' Martin said.

"I'm not sure you need to expand it unless you allow additional development. If you allow Walmart at Plumtree, you may have to see how 24 interacts with that development," he said, "but I'm just not sure I see the need for an entire revamping of Route 24 at this point."

Cox has the opposite opinion.

"It's gonna happen," he said, pointing out that the stretch from Marketplace Drive to just past Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, which opened in 2000, is already three lanes.

"That's what would happen all the way down," he added.

Cox's family has been in Harford County since the 1700s, and he was born on Edgewood Arsenal, now the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground. He's seen all three Route 24s – the one at VanBibber under the train track and over Winters Run (renumbered 755); the old 24 that became Route 924; and the new 24 that's 25 years old.

"All we can do is hope the legislature in the future can work to improve on what we did," Cox said. "I'm happy I was part of it and the future is a little different than it was in the 1700s. A new, new, new, new 24? Who knows? Anything can happen."

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