First of two parts
Fifty years ago Thursday, President John F. Kennedy traveled to the Maryland-Delaware state line to celebrate one of the largest transportation accomplishments of the era, one that would have a profound effect on Harford County in the ensuing half a century.
It was estimated that as many as 5,000 people – although some put the crowd in the hundreds, not thousands – gathered to witness the ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of the Northeastern Expressway, linking Baltimore and Wilmington, on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1963.
President Kennedy, along with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes, Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel and the chairs of the two states' highway commissions attended the ceremony.
When the first vehicle entered about eight hours later, the Northeastern Expressway became the first modern-day toll road in Maryland.
In the mid-1950s, when the Maryland General Assembly first passed legislation authorizing the construction of the Northeastern Expressway, it was to be a toll facility used to bring commerce into the area.
A year later, the federal Interstate Act of 1956 was passed, which could have changed the status of the road to make it toll free. With both states having used federal highway money on other projects, however, bonds were to finance construction, and tolls were needed to repay them. A $74 million bond issue, paying 4.125 percent interest, was floated to build the toll road.
The timeline of the 12-year project was bumped up and, in just 18 months, construction workers built the 42-mile dual lane Maryland portion of the expressway from the White Marsh area of eastern Baltimore County to the Delaware State line, what became part of the I-95 system running along the East Coast.
Another eight miles, from White Marsh to Moravia Road and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway in east Baltimore, was a free road, built with federal funds, and the White Marsh exit was designed as an "escape route" for motorists who didn't want to pay the toll to jump off onto Route 40.
To construct the highway, a wide right-of-way had to be purchased and excavated in Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties. Forested areas were cleared, and many farmers sacrificed their properties to progress.
Harford Del. Mary-Dulany James remembers her late father, William S. James, was a Maryland senator during the construction of the highway. Sen. James was instrumental in securing funding for the highway and in helping to determine its final route through Harford.
James said her father's chief concern was to do as little damage as possible to the environment.
"I was a little girl at the time," James said. "[I-95] was one of the things my father was proudest of because he was very much a conservationist."
James said it was important to her father that as many trees as possible stayed up around the highway. She said the Maryland portion of I-95 looks different than almost any other portion because it has limited "gaudy" signage. Her father wrote legislation to keep out the tall signs – "jumbos," as he called them – around interchanges that would eventually show up along I-95 in other states.
James said I-95 shows environmental, business and political communities can come together for a common good and without a lot of tension. She said the construction of the expressway required "cooperative undertakings at all levels of government."
The Northeastern Expressway was designed to be a quicker alternative route to driving along Route 40, which at the time, was the major route for motor transportation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.
W. Dale Hess, a Harford County delegate when the highway was built, said that Route 40, like any road, "gets over capacity with people using it."
Hess, another Harford legislator who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground, said there was too much traffic using Route 40 to travel from New York and Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington and points south, as well as the local traffic from communities in Harford and Baltimore counties.