Even though a state plan to add express toll lanes to I-95 in Harford County and to possibly build a new Park-and-Ride lot at Route 152 in Joppa is years in the future, state transportation officials are continuing their quest for environmental permits in connection with the project.
The permitting process already has raised flags with some property owners along I-95 who will be affected by the planned widening of the highway, notably the congregation of Trinity Church at 2907 Mountain Road near the interchange.
Of particular concern is the state's plan to reconfigure the Route 152 interchange and relocate the existing commuter park and ride lots.
About 20 people attended a public hearing in Abingdon late last month, held by the Maryland Department of the Environment regarding the MdTA's application for a Nontidal Wetlands and Waterways Permit.
Many residents said they thought what is known as the Section 200 project had been stopped around 2008, but they learned earlier this year officials are still pursuing permits. Property owners along the highway from Route 543 in Riverside south to Baltimore County were invited to attend last month's meeting.
Concerns are being raised about the impact the Section 200 project will have on surrounding woods and wetlands and, in particular, the potential for a large portion of Trinity Church's property to be taken for the new Park-and-Ride.
"Those woods are sacred to us; they are precious to us," said Vincent Rabenau, who lives in the area. "They are a buffer to us from the noise and the traffic of I-95 and the thought of them being destroyed is just heartbreaking."
Gloria Moon, also of Joppa, suggests officials "need to rethink the whole thing, I think." Moon is a member of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Council and president of the Little Gunpowder Improvement Association, which serves residents living within an area bounded by the Little Gunpowder Falls, Route 7, Winters Run and Reckord Road.
"What they have planned, we just don't have the land for it," Moon continued. "The land on the north side of I-95 is fragile."
Trinity Church is in the 2900 block of Mountain Road, located about a quarter of a mile directly north of the interchange. The existing park and ride lots sit between the on- and off-ramps of the interchange in the area that would be used to accommodate the planned express lanes.
Officials with the Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for I-95, have said negotiations with church leaders to purchase 13 acres of their property in 2005 were not successful and they are not interested in the church land.
Plans for Section 200 suggest otherwise, one church official said recently.
The church has about 300 members. Executive Pastor Brent Brewer said plans church leaders have seen all show the Trinity property as a "preferred site" for the Park-and-Ride.
Brewer said placing the lot on 13 acres of wooded land, "less than 50 feet" from the church building, could affect parking for church members on Sunday, especially when Harford County residents travel to Baltimore for Orioles or Ravens games. He also has concerns about the potential for problems with litter and runoff pollution from the asphalt.
He said the church was built at its location at Mountain Road and Jaycee Drive because of its accessibility to I-95 and convenience for people living in both Harford and Baltimore counties.
"And just the overall natural beauty of the property, I think, made it very appealing," Brewer said.
Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said environmental officials will take public comments into consideration when deciding whether to issue a permit.
"No decision has been made at this point, whether or not to issue the permit, but a decision is expected by mid-August," Apperson said.
No funding yet
John Sales, a spokesman with the Maryland Transportation Authority, said the improvements for Section 200, which covers the portion of I-95 north of Route 43 at White Marsh to north of Route 22 in Aberdeen, are not included in the Maryland Department of Transportation's most recent six-year Consolidated Transportation Plan.
Planning documents provided by Sales last week, however, show a large Park-and-Ride lot for Route 152 at the southern edge of the church building, and a Route 24 lot in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Route 24 (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway) and Route 924 (Emmorton Road)
"As we do not have funding identified beyond planning for this project, no efforts are underway to purchase the property needed for the MD 152 Park & Ride," Sales wrote in an e-mail last week.
The MdTA operates and maintains toll roads, bridges and tunnels across the state, and has $2.17 billion worth of projects in its portion of the Transportation Department's 2012-2017 Consolidated Transportation Plan.
The agency's funding comes only from toll revenues; no money comes from the state's Transportation Trust Fund or general fund, Sales said.
Officials with the MdTA are seeking various federal and state permits to conduct system preservation projects to maintain Section 200 in its current eight-lane state, according to Sales.
"It allow us to do any of those smaller system preservation projects without having to go through the permitting process for those," Sales explained.
"When we applied for [the Nontidal Wetlands and Waterways Permit] over two years ago, the intent was to focus it on the Section 200 ETLs [Express Toll Lanes] but it also does have an added benefit of allowing us to do these smaller system preservation projects on that stretch of I-95," Sales continued.
The agency is also overseeing construction of toll lanes for Section 100 of I-95, between the I-95/895 split north of the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore and just north of White Marsh. That project is expected to be completed in 2014.
Rabenau, who is also a member of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Council, suggested the state create separate permits for the toll lanes and park and ride.
He works in Silver Spring and regularly commutes on I-95 and said the major traffic issues going toward Baltimore occur closer to the Beltway, on Section 100, south of White Marsh. He suggests waiting until Section 100 is complete and those toll lanes are in use before considering upgrades to Section 200.
"I believe that the MdTA would be wise to finish Section 100 and observe its benefits, observe its impact," Rabenau said.
Sales said the toll lanes for Section 200 were determined by MdTA planners to be the "most viable option" for relieving congestion on I-95 in Harford County, based on comments from the agency, the public and environmental and engineering analysts.