Caution urged on I-95 plans

The Baltimore Sun

After reviewing construction options that would address growing congestion on Interstate 95 through Harford County, one group wants to take a wait-and-see stance, hoping to find local traffic relief from an $11 billion upgrade to the highway in Baltimore County.

The project on 10 miles of I-95, known as Section 100, involves construction of several overpasses at the Baltimore Beltway and other intersections and the addition of toll lanes in both directions from I-895 to Route 43 in White Marsh. It is scheduled to open in 2012.

"We consider it prudent to wait and see what happens after the I-95 upgrades south of Harford are completed," said Morita Bruce, board member of the Friends of Harford, a community activist group concerned with land use.

"Work on Section 100, which is a choke point on the highway, may solve the problem here," she said.

A no-build option is the least likely to succeed, said state officials.

State planners are considering three alternatives for Section 200, which would be the next phase of the interstate improvements.

Officials expect to choose an option by the end of the year. They could decide on a no-build or the construction of additional general purpose lanes or express toll lanes from Route 43 to Route 22 in Aberdeen. So far, no funds are budgeted for the project.

The Maryland Transportation Authority has rated parts of the interstate, particularly the stretch near Bel Air, as near failure because of persistent traffic jams and accidents. Research has shown that express toll lanes help alleviate congestion.

"I-95 is the East Coast's Main Street," said Michael J. Rothenheber, an engineering consultant working with the state. "It handles the port of Baltimore, access to BWI and connects neighboring states. We are looking at what we have to do to improve safety and capacity."

From 2002 to 2004, there was a 23 percent increase in accidents on the Harford section of the highway, due largely to congestion and delays, he said. Daily traffic increased from 120,000 cars to 165,000 from White Marsh to Route 152 in Joppa in the past 15 years.

By 2030, the entire length in Harford will be failing if nothing is done. Motorists will experience increasing congestion and frequent shut-downs, and will find it impossible to travel at or near the speed limit, he said.

"If we do nothing, we will be sitting here 10 years from now and not be able to move," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie.

State transportation planners have met frequently with community groups to gather comments on their proposals. Of the nearly 50 people attending Wednesday's meeting, most said they want to wait before deciding on any construction. Not a single person favored building express toll lanes through the county.

"Studies have shown that widening roads to ease congestion is a temporary fix at best," Bruce said. "More lanes actually allow more development to occur."

Many residents said they prefer expanded public transportation to additional lanes.

"You are not doing enough to take commuters off the roads," said Alan Sweatman, a Friends of Harford board member. "You need to put commuters on trains and buses. There are just too many people trying to squeeze into Baltimore every morning."

The group urged more transit buses along I-95 and additional trains to Baltimore and Washington to serve commuters along the Route 40 corridor.

"We would still need to improve intersections along 95," said Melissa Williams, planning manager for MdTA. "At best, mass transit would lead to a five percent reduction in traffic volume on the interstate."

The administration has done environmental studies, researched the impact of noise and looked at the effects of widening on surrounding properties.

"Our goal overall is the public good," said Williams.

Widening would also entail increased spaces at area park and rides, especially the heavily used lot on Mountain Road.

Transportation officials have scheduled a meeting on that project for 6 p.m. May 20 at Joppa Magnolia Fire Hall, 1403 Old S. Mountain Road.

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