To the Sierra Club of Greater Baltimore, it is a disaster waiting to happen.
To those who own land along its route, it is 30 years in coming.
And to Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, it is a $60 million four-lane highway needed to reverse the sagging economic fortunes of Baltimore County's east side by connecting Middle River to the fast-growing White Marsh corridor.
Ruppersberger, who sees job creation as a priority, is pushing hard for state funds to extend Route 43 to connect Pulaski Highway to Eastern Avenue and open up some of the county's last vacant industrially zoned land to warehouses, office parks and manufacturing plants.
"You don't just revitalize residential neighborhoods, you have to revitalize commercial areas as well, to make sure the jobs are there," Ruppersberger said.
The county executive has upset environmentalists who see the project as an unnecessary expense that will damage environmentally sensitive wetlands and ruin one of the largest undeveloped parcels of privately owned land in the county.
"It's sort of a road in search of a development project. It's not really necessary," said Brian Parker of the Sierra Club's Greater Baltimore Group.
Parker said the project is planned for 450 acres of wetlands and would cross several waterways, including White Marsh Run and Windlass Run.
"My concern is that people want it because the executive is for it, but nobody knows exactly what's at stake," Parker said. "New roads are not the answer to an area's economic problems."
Parker says the land would be better used as a park. "It makes more sense to put the money they would spend on the road into the redevelopment of Essex and Middle River," Parker said.
Tom Lehner, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, also said money would be better spent trying to attract businesses to fill the Middle River area's vacant storefronts.
The road is part of Ruppersberger's overall revitalization package for the Middle River area. "We've worked with the environmental community, and we'll continue to work with them," the executive said, "but if you back down on this issue, you create gridlock for thousands of other people out there who have to use our infrastructure every day."
Many business leaders agree. "That highway will be an economic shot in the arm, not just for Middle River but for the whole east side of the county," said Ken Coldwell, president of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce.
Those pushing to develop Middle River say the highway would make almost 2,000 industrially zoned acres more accessible -- including the 1,000-acre A. V. Williams property that was rejected last year as the site for a racetrack.
"It's a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. If we don't build the highway, we're not going to get a developer in there. If we put the road in, they'll come," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, whose district includes the area of the proposed highway.
A county economic development report estimates that the highway would attract between 9,600 and 15,500 jobs by connecting White Marsh and Interstate 95 with some of the Middle River area's economic assets, such as Martin State Airport, the Chesapeake Industrial Park, the MARC rail station and the Lockheed Martin Aerostructures plant.
Tract has been passed over
William Poole, a real estate broker who represents the A. V. Williams Trust, said the road has been planned for more than 30 years. But he said that over the years, the Williams tract has been passed over by Toyota and Saturn looking for sites for manufacturing plants, by a developer planning an office, retail and theme park, and by another who proposed the raceway.
Poole said he has no idea how much the value of the Williams property would increase -- or who will buy it -- if the highway is built.
"There's no sense speculating, and we don't know because we haven't really been marketing the property without the highway," Poole said.
Ruppersberger said he placed the highway on his legislative agenda after the racetrack proposal fell through last year, partly because the roads were insufficient. "We told the racetrack people it was a five-year plan for the roads, and they just wouldn't go for it," Ruppersberger said.
Ruppersberger said his commitment to spend $12 million in county funds on the project should help persuade Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fund the $50 million balance. Last year, Glendening agreed to earmark $2 million in planning and engineering money for the road extension and promised to provide construction money later.
Five routes considered
Heather Murphy, project manager of the State Highway Administration, said the funding decision is not likely until after a public hearing in June to determine the route of the highway. Construction might not begin for five years and could take two to three years to finish, she said.
Murphy said SHA is considering five different routes.
Robert L. Hannon, the county economic development director, said county officials prefer the proposed route that begins at the MARC rail station on Eastern Avenue, near Martin State Airport, sweeps northeast of the Holly Hill Memorial Gardens Cemetery and connects with White Marsh Boulevard at Route 40.
Murphy said plans call for a four-lane highway with partial access, which means that, as on White Marsh Boulevard, there will be intersections with major county roads but no access from driveways. State highway officials estimate that the artery would handle between 25,000 and 45,000 vehicles each day.
Parker of the Sierra Club said he intends to keep fighting the project, though he's not optimistic. "The best solution would be if there was no road, but if there has to be one, it would be best to have minimal impact," Parker said. "It seems like a lot of people have their minds made up."
Pub Date: 1/31/99