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Unstraight and narrow

The Baltimore Sun

George McCeney is fond of the one-lane bridge that spans the Gunpowder Falls near his house in northern Baltimore County.

So much so that the retired high school teacher wrote a song about it. One of the verses goes:

Pulling off the interstate at Exit 24 / Makes me forget that factory job back down in Baltimore. / I drive along the river singing songs of God and man, / And stop at that one-lane bridge to wave to Mary Ann.

McCeney's tribute to the truss bridge, which he recited at a county planning board meeting, is a folksy symbol of a larger conflict that pits preservationists against road engineers in rural areas across the Baltimore region. As those areas attract more residents, narrow bridges and roads are often widened to meet safety standards. But that doesn't sit well with many longtime residents.

More than 20 bridges in northern Baltimore County need major repairs or replacement, according to county officials. Several road-widening projects are also planned in the area to handle increased traffic. The Glencoe Road bridge isn't on that list of projects, but residents including McCeney worry about the eventual loss of it and other country bridges and roads.

Similar conflicts have arisen in rural areas of Howard, Harford and other counties. In some cases, counties have preserved the rural character of roads and bridges - even at the cost of sacrificing federal funds.

"We do every thing we can to repair what we have," says Baltimore County Public Works Director Edward C. Adams Jr. But, he adds, "We're talking about bridges that are 80 to 100 years old. Some of these structures were built for horses and buggies, when the roads were dirt and mud."

County officials say they must use the highest safety standards, even if it means sometimes widening, straightening and rebuilding.

Preservationists and some residents see the natural curves and one-lane bridges as an effective way to slow cars. And they are urging government officials to adopt a tailored set of guidelines for repairing roads and replacing bridges more suited for the country.

"We're not saying we don't want standards. We just want them to fit the local context," says Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, the conservation group pressing for rural road design standards.

"Baltimore County has done so much to preserve the rural areas," Moore says. The policies for road projects, though, "are out of sync with the land-use policies."

The bridge near McCeney's house is rudimentary and simple. Some residents decorate the metal rails of the 100-foot span at Christmas with bows and greenery.

McCeney remembers his kids fishing off the bridge when they were growing up. He calls his song "Mr. Bailey's Bridge," because it uses a Bailey design made popular by the British during World War II.

The bridge causes motorists to slow down and to take turns crossing, says McCeney. "You get to see people," he says. "It's one of the nice things about living in the country."

Residents in other Maryland counties feel the same way.

In Howard County, improvements to rural roads and bridges have been a source of public debate, said James M. Irvin, the public works director.

More than a dozen roads have been designated by Howard County as scenic; before any major work can be done on them, a public hearing must be held, Irvin said. "The question is always can we design something to meet public safety standards and that is also aesthetically pleasing."

In Harford County, under pressure by some residents, officials dropped plans several years ago to pave dirt and gravel roads. Now, the county waits for residents to ask for paving, said W. Hudson Myers III, deputy director of the public works department.

And in Montgomery County, which has regulations to preserve about 100 "rustic" roads, officials recently rebuilt the one-lane Mouth of the Monocacy bridge in Dickerson without widening the crossing, even though it meant that the project wouldn't qualify for federal funding to help pay for it, said Sarah Navid, staff coordinator for the program.

Adams, of Baltimore County, says that the federal guidelines include standards for low-use roads and bridges. Not all of them must be several lanes wide, he says.

Adams compares the guidelines to a cookbook. "A cookbook will tell you how to cook a turkey, but it'll also have a recipe for a turkey sandwich," he says. "You use what works."

But Moore says part of the problem with current standards is that they can factor in traffic that may not develop.

Last year, for example, a bridge on Mount Zion Road was closed, and county officials said it should be replaced with a wider span.

But when calculating the bridge's use, Moore says that officials projected a much higher volume of traffic in the future than could realistically be expected, given that development is restricted by conservation easements.

Similarly, the Valleys Planning Council says, the county tends to overuse guard rails along curves, even where there's no history of accidents. And the organization objects to the county's requiring property owners to provide large rights-of-way along roads, giving officials the ability to widen some thoroughfares significantly, even as residents are donating development rights for preservation.

Baltimore County officials say few roads are widened in rural areas. Sections of only about seven roads in rural Baltimore county have been identified by road engineers as needing improvements over the next three decades, Adams told the planning board in November.

To develop a compromise, Baltimore County planning board members, preservationists and county officials have formed a rural roads committee. Later this month, the committee is expected to report back to the planning board with possible compromises.

"The differences of opinion are probably less than people thought," said Edward J. Gilliss, the new chairman of the planning board.

By articulating how roads will be repaired and bridges replaced, preservationists and residents are hoping that there will be fewer unintended changes. For example, road crews repaving Bonita Avenue also widened it, says Suzanne Spohn, a federal worker who lives in Owings Mills.

As a result, she says, motorists speed up, and it's no longer safe to walk there.

"The rural roads are a treasure that Baltimore County should preserve," Spohn says. "If a winding road forces people to slow down, that's not a big price to pay."

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