Building Roads, Saving Trees


Just as our eyes adjust to changes in light, so do our memories compensate for alterations to the landscape. Forests get leveled for a road, subdivision or a shopping center and within a few years, the refigured surroundings look as if they've always been that way.

The State Highway Administration long used that quirk to its advantage. When confronted by residents unhappy with massive tree-taking, the agency's view seemed to be (a) no one will remember what this area looked like in a few years, and (b) if Mother Nature wants a forest here badly enough, she'll make another one in 100 years.

One of the best examples of that mind set was the SHA's destruction of the gateway to Annapolis in the U.S. 50-301 expansion in the late '80s. To be sure, it was an immense project necessitated by the traffic boom between Annapolis and Washington. But the public and politicians were outraged by the SHA's seeming indifference toward the surrounding creeks. Anyone who now looks east from Interstate 97 to see a dozen lanes of asphalt can't imagine that the road not long ago had a median of towering trees and a forested exit to Annapolis more befitting the historic state capital. It's encouraging then that some of the people who battled the SHA for its chain-saw proclivities now feel it is more sensitive to the landscape.

In its current work to extend Route 100 from Interstate 97 in Anne Arundel County to Interstate 95, in Howard County, the department spent $1.5 million and more than two years to search for the corridor that disturbed the fewest trees. To compensate for the loss of nature to new roads in Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, the SHA is also spending about $2 million to turn an abandoned mine in Wayson's Corner into a large wetlands area. This evolution in thinking isn't just in Maryland; the $151 billion federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 encourages all highway agencies to pay greater heed to the environment.

The SHA also must not hesitate to fire contractors working on its projects who disregard environmental protections.

Make no mistake: This isn't the Sierra Club with backhoes. The agency's purpose is to maintain and improve the road network. People who think mass transit alone can accommodate Maryland's future transportation needs are mistaken. But it's good to see a state highway department that no longer sees "tree" as merely a four-letter word.

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