Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Republican Harford County Executive David Craig could be slugging it out for the state's highest office a year from now, but they were all smiles and handshakes Monday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of upgrades to the Route 715/Route 40 interchange near Aberdeen Proving Ground's main gate.
Brown and Craig, who sat next to each other during the ceremony, attended by state, local and Army officials, chatted as they walked toward their seats on the edge of the parking lot of the APG Visitor Center. Both lauded the county, state, municipal and federal partnerships needed to complete the $33 million, three-year project.
Both men are running for governor in 2014 and, at this point in the campaign, each is considered the front-runner to capture his party's nomination.
The interchange where Monday's ceremony took place serves as a major access point for anyone who has business or is visiting the sprawling Army research installation. Motorists traveling east and west on Route 40 (Pulaski Highway) who have business at APG can take Route 715 to the main gate, as can those coming from I-95 who are not Army personnel or civilian contractor employees who work on the post daily.
The project, which was part of the multi-year Base Closure and Realignment process in Maryland, more commonly known as BRAC, involved upgrading the interchange from a partial to a full interchange and widening lanes on Route 715.
"These improvements are going to make it easier for all residents to be able to spend less time behind the wheel in the car, behind another car, and more time either with their families or on the job being productive," Brown told the audience at the ribbon cutting.
The lieutenant governor, who served as keynote speaker, referred to Craig as "my partner," and thanked the members of the Harford County Council for their support.
"Harford County, you all have been tremendous partners in this effort," he said.
The county executive likewise thanked representatives of all levels of government.
"It's never about the D or the R," Craig explained. "It's always about making sure we get the job done, and that's what it should be."
Brown also reiterated recent announcements by state officials of more BRAC-related transportation improvements, such as providing MARC train service during the weekends, and $72 million toward road improvements in BRAC communities such as Aberdeen, with $43 million for road projects in the Aberdeen area.
Bennett, Aberdeen's mayor, and Maj. Gen. Robert Ferrell, commanding general of the Communications-Electronics Command at APG and the post's ranking general, also spoke during the ceremony. State Highway Administrator Melinda Peters was emcee.
A group of soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues stood behind the ribbon as the dignitaries took turns speaking.
Craig acknowledged the soldiers, saying they are "the people who we want to give a good life to, because they're the ones that this is all about."
"It is all about making sure that the people that protect our lives and freedoms, and allow us to have an event like this, come home and can be with their families, and that we can respect them and they can have a good life, and that's the key," he said.
Construction on the interchange began in October 2010, as workers completed a series of upgrades to the overpass and ramps and also widened Route 715 from four to six lanes in both directions between the bridge over the Amtrak rail line and the main gate of APG.
The goal was "improving traffic operations and security operations at the main gate," according to a fact sheet provided by SHA officials after Monday's ceremony.
Brown served as chairman of the Governor's Subcabinet on Base Closure and Realignment to oversee the implementation of the 2005 BRAC process, which brought hundreds of new civilian employees to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Ferrell said the subcabinet "helped make the implementation of the 2005 BRAC such a success."
"This also laid the groundwork for the completion of vital projects like the one we are here to commemorate today," the general continued, thanking the state, local and APG leaders for their work on the interchange project.
He also gave special thanks to the construction workers who, "day in and day out, in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, were out here making this project a reality," as well as the local and state law enforcement officers who kept the workers safe.
"Many of them are not here today, but let's give them... a huge round of applause and a loud Army HOOAH!" Ferrell said.
Bennett chaired a local government subcommittee of the subcabinet. The Aberdeen mayor noted the city has gone through "a lot of trials and tribulations" with the highway project, but residents and those who work at the installation, which is Harford County's largest employer with 11,000 civilian and military workers, got through everything.
"We got through that," Bennett said. "We made the best of it, even in bad times when we had bad weather and traffic jams. We got through all of that and I think that we're seeing a lot better flow of traffic through the area."
Brown and Peters each acknowledged Bennett's role as municipal chief executive, whose constituents bore the brunt of the impacts of the three-year construction project.
Peters said few people know more about "the effects of major construction on a community than the region's local officials."
Bennett, a Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for county executive to succeed Craig, also touched on his and Brown's shared past in Army aviation, Brown as a pilot and Bennett as an air traffic controller.