Cumberland studies plans for road, park along C&O; Canal


CUMBERLAND -- Tough economic times are not getting in the way of a vision in Cumberland for a proposed two-lane highway and park along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

Despite the financial climate, a committee of local, state and federal government officials, preservationists and business leaders is forging ahead with plans to study a roadway and park along the canal in this Western Maryland city.

It's a project that officials are reluctant to put a price tag on yet, as four proposals are under consideration.

"It's a mammoth undertaking by our standards," said J. Glenn Beall Jr., a former U.S. senator who is chairing the committee. "I would not want to estimate the costs, but as a long-term project it is very doable.

"I'm not sure how long 'long-term' is here, but we're talking about millions of dollars," he said. "But it can be done in stages, and it would be a wonderful asset for the whole area and those interested in the canal and its history and [in] preserving this important part of our heritage."

The 185-mile canal, which extends from Georgetown in Washington to Cumberland, was a major shipping route before the arrival of railroad service. It now serves as a tourist and nature attraction, with numerous parks developed along the waterway.

The impetus for the canal parkway study was finding a way to relieve traffic congestion in southern Cumberland. City officials have lobbied the State Highway Administration for several years to ease traffic problems in that part of the city.

Local leaders who had been looking for a way to develop the canal, which runs through southern Cumberland, saw the opportunity to link the solution to the traffic problem with the canal.

The proposal has faced some protests from preservationists, who argue that the canal would be damaged and its historic value diminished. But state highway officials sought out those interested in the history of the canal to be on the study committee, easing some of those concerns.

"We tried to get as many of the different types of groups that are interested in the canal on the steering committee," said Neil Pederson, the State Highway Administration's director of planning.

Included on the committee are representatives of the federal advisory committee of the C&O; Canal; the C&O; Canal Association, a non-profit citizens group dedicated to the preservation of the canal; and National Park Service representatives such as Thomas O. Hobbs, superintendent of the canal.

"The integrity of the canal is something we will all be watching very carefully for," Mr. Hobbs said.

The committee received a report last month that outlined four alternatives. One option is no construction; two others consist of the upgrading and expansion of existing roads or construction of new roads, all dealing only with the traffic congestion.

The fourth, the one that has generated the most interest, includes the canal parkway, a road running parallel to the canal with a park consisting of historic attractions.

The committee will be holding a series of public meetings with city residents and groups interested in the project in the next few months. It is scheduled to meet Feb. 25 with Cumberland Mayor Harry Stern and members of the City Council.

Councilman Joseph Freno, representing the city on the committee, said that while the proposed parkway appeared to be a good idea, it was not the top priority of the city.

State highway officials said they recognized the need to deal with the traffic problem but still hoped to find a way to combine the road solution with an economic development opportunity.

They also recognize that all this is heady talk during difficult economic times.

"This is not something that would happen overnight," said Mr. Pederson, who foresees money for the project coming from a variety of sources -- federal, state and local governments and the private sector.

Another transportation project that would be connected to the canal development is already under way -- the $3.2 million replacement of an old bridge that crosses the Potomac River and the canal in southern Cumberland.

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