Editorial: Route 24 has made worse the problem it sought to solve

It's been a quarter of a century since Route 24 opened to traffic, but only relatively recently has it ceased to be known as either "New 24" or, more obscurely, the Emmorton Bypass.

Indeed, at this late date, Emmorton is a place name with little sense of place beyond Emmorton Elementary School, nestled near the corner of Wheel and Tollgate roads within easy walking distance of the Abingdon branch of the Harford County Public Library.

Route 24 was built to change an unpleasant aspect of Harford County, that of increased traffic, but ended up changing a lot more. Emmorton is barely a place. It has been overrun by Abingdon, which historically centered around the crossroads of Abingdon Road and Route 7. For most people, the Route 7 Abingdon crossroads is a backwater to the main portion of what is regarded as Abingdon, that being the shopping centers, housing developments and schools that grew up on the territory on either side of Route 24. New 24, that is.

Old Route 24, known these days as 924, needed only a two lane bridge over I-95 and was bounded in living memory by farmland. These days, it's probably more crowded than it was when the parallel four lane version of the road was built 25 years ago. The new four lane highway has been upgraded fairly regularly in the ensuing 25 years, yet it is a rush hour horror.

Built ostensibly to relieve the traffic problems on the two-lane Old 24, New 24 cleared the way for an exponential increase in the kind of development that made it necessary in the first place.

The traffic problems that turned Old 24 into a bottleneck in the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted from Bel Air making the transition from its role as a center of government and commerce for a rural community to an expansive bedroom community for people working in Baltimore and beyond.

This growth occurred, of course, because of the opening of another highway in the mid-1960s, known in those days as the Northeast Expressway, but now known simply as I-95, or just 95. The new highway put country living within reach of a lot of people working in the city. Baltimore, troubled on many fronts, shrank in population while Harford and other counties beyond the Baltimore Beltway absorbed those people.

Initially, this was known as white flight, but in a few years it became clear that middle class aspirations, regardless of race, are fairly uniform in their preference for a suburban or rural existence rather than a cosmopolitan urban lifestyle, at least in most of the U.S.

So Bel Air turned in to the Greater Bel Air Area, and Old Route 24 was jammed with commuter traffic every weekday morning and evening. The solution: build a new, four lane highway parallel to the old road and essentially triple the capacity of the roads into and out of Bel Air.

Sounds good, but this put even more rural territory within easy reach of workplaces in Baltimore and beyond, so Greater Bel Air grew more so today it is reasonable to say it includes the whole of the Route 24 corridor from Forest Hill south to I-95.

Government land use planners are quick to point out in discussions about development that residential growth occurs as a function of demand, and most public policies that seek to regulate such growth are successful only if they acknowledge this realty and seek to direct rather than limit growth. It's true enough, but the building of highways is a factor that can limit or expand the degree to which large numbers of people have the economic wherewithal to buy houses in a particular community. New 24, and before it I-95, put a lot more people in the market for suburban living than would have been creating the demand for houses had they not been built.

On the whole, for most of the people reading this, construction of both highways has been a positive development. Harford County, at least the parts of it that are easily accessed via 95 and 24, may not be the rural community it once was, but it has grown into a community with suburban and, remarkably, urban areas even as it has remained a desirable place to live.

All of this has become self-evident in the rear-view mirror because hindsight is notoriously clear. A quarter of a century ago, New Route 24 was seen as the long-term solution to Harford County's traffic problems. Now, it is clearly the root of traffic problems the likes of which were unimaginable way back then.

So what of the future? Lately in Harford County there has been talk of making Route 22 between Bel Air and I-95 at Aberdeen a four lane road. If that happens, how long will it be before Route 543 is similarly widened, and how long will it be before Churchville and Creswell are lost, as is Emmorton, as part of Greater Bel Air?

Possibly, such changes are inevitable, but possibly they also are worth avoiding. Such predictions are hard to make.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently has been talking about her desire to reverse the city's precipitous population drop that began and has accelerated in the years since the opening of I-95, Route 24 and a dozen other similar commuter routes in the area. Her oft-stated desire to grow the city's population by 10,000 families in 10 years would do a lot to relieve the pressure to further develop suburban areas like Harford County, especially given that Maryland's population growth has been relatively moderate on the whole.

Were Baltimore to mitigate its crime problems relative to the counties, dramatically improve the performance of its public schools and offer competitively priced modern housing (including property tax rates), the difference between the city and the more urban areas of its suburbs would be largely indistinguishable at this point.

Baltimore has a long way to go on all the fronts that make the counties so much more appealing as places to live, and it remains to be seen if it will ever progress from having a few desirable neighborhoods to being a desirable place to live on the whole.

Of course, if that doesn't happen, and Harford County's population center expands to include not only the Route 22, but also the Route 543 and Route 22 corridors, the county could find itself in the same needy situation as the city.

The best path forward, now that New 24 has become as congested as Old 24, is not clear. Relying on Baltimore City to rise above its current state is hardly a sure thing. Expecting new road construction locally can be expected to make traffic worse over the long haul. Easy solutions achieved cheaply are nowhere in sight.

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