Rushing Too Fast, Too Far on Ma & Pa


How can it be a bad idea, to convert miles of abandoned railroad track bed into a hiking-biking-riding trail for wholesome outdoor recreation? What could be amiss with a greenways path along the homey-sounding Ma & Pa Heritage Corridor, using mostly Harford County land and easements?

Maybe it's not the idea. Maybe it's only the incomplete, sign-this-blank-check proposal presented to the County Council by the Rehrmann administration last month. The one where the new Harford County parks and recreation director, Joseph Pfaff, kept referring council members' questions to the president of a private foundation established to lobby for the project.

Maybe it's the cost -- more than $200,000 per mile for a walking trail through public land. And, perhaps it's the prospect of funneling hundreds of visitors across private property, via county easements that were intended for necessary public transportation, not for recreation.

The 10-foot wide trail of compacted stone dust is proposed to stretch from Heavenly Waters Park on Tollgate Road to Friends Park in Forest Hill. Eventually, the plan is for a trail coursing the entire 26 miles of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, from the Mason-Dixon Line near Delta, Pa., to the Harford-Baltimore County border at Gunpowder Falls State Park.

The main selling point in the administration's plan, as presented at a public hearing in council chambers two weeks ago, is that a federal grant will pay the largest portion of the cost, about $700,000. Harford's share would be more than $400,000. (Do we hear echoes of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in this discussion, insisting that it's only federal money?)

Sorry, but that's not good enough. Fortunately, the County Council agreed and asked the county executive to withdraw the request until important details could be filled in. Like the actual route of the proposed trail. And the sites of public parking lots for trail users.

Mrs. Rehrmann said she would not withdraw the proposal to shift the $409,000 from the parks acquisition budget to the parks development purse. All unanswered questions could be answered in a timely manner, she assured the body. Under law, the council has to take action by April 27 or the legislation is dead.

We expect the administration will come up with the missing details and answers to basic questions posed by skeptical council members. There's no reason for this to become a test of political power. Goodness knows, we had enough of that the past four years.

At the same time, the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail as it is now proposed may not be the right thing for Harford County.

First, there are about 20 privately owned properties that the trail would traverse if it followed the railroad bed. (The tracks were taken up long ago, after the short line stopped operating in 1958.) Three-quarters of these landowners have agreed in principle to let the county have easements to lay the trail, Mr. Pfaff said.

But not all affected property owners are so sanguine about the project. A half-dozen of them spoke out at the public hearing against the expected heavy traffic and the disturbance of neighboring land from the trail. These are real concerns because the county has not proven an overwhelming need for such a path.

Proponents of the recreation project point to the popularity of 500 similar converted railroad beds across the country. Using old railroad rights of way for these "linear parks" makes land acquisition much simpler.

In the Harford case, however, numbers of private landowners re-acquired the easements from the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad after it ceased operations. Fifteen footbridges must also be built to span gullies.

E. J. Hornick, head of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Ma & Pa Railroad, points to the Northern Central Trail in northern Baltimore County as an example of the kind of trail that works. (See letter at right.) He'd better hope that opponents of his pet project don't go over to Ashland to take a good look at what's happening there every weekend.

Cars are parked bumper to bumper along both sides of Paper Mill Road, obscuring the vision of motorists. Cyclists dart out into traffic to cross the busy road. Sno-cone and snack stands appear at the access sites; abundant litter is not confined to trash barrels.

Designated parking lots are over-filled, the latecomers parking precariously along the sides of steep ditches; someone usually gets stuck and the car has to be pushed or towed back onto the road.

Bicyclists, pedestrians and equestrians try to coexist on the trail, but it's an uncomfortable squeeze. I've seen a cyclist skid into a baby buggy and more than a few close calls with pedestrians. Popular it may be with cyclists, but it's becoming decidedly less so for weekend strollers.

Just how a horseback rider is supposed to control his skittish mount along the narrow passage in such a mix of traffic, including dogs, is something most trail users don't even want to think about. That pushes the envelope way too far, yet equestrian use of the Ma & Pa trail in Harford is a strong stipulation of Mr. Hornick's group.

All things considered, the County Council would do well to step off the trail at this time and carefully study the implications, including the still uncertain costs. This is one feel-good recreation proposal that should not be railroaded through.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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