A lot of work has gone into planning and securing the necessary rights-of-way to build the long-awaited Ma & Pa Heritage Trail connection through Bel Air, and the start of construction is slated to begin this fall, according to Harford County government.
While it may seem like this has been a long process, let’s put things in perspective. Building the 7.5-mile trail connecting Fallston and Forest Hill has been a massive undertaking, one that has spanned nearly 30 years – and counting – across five county administrations and involved millions of dollars in county, state and private funding. Though parts of the existing trail and the planned connection do follow closely the route of the trail’s namesake, the defunct Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, other parts do not, and when the trail planning process started three decades ago, a lot of the route folks walk, run or bike on today wasn’t in the public domain.
The Bel Air extension – or middle section – of the trail, totaling 2.5 miles, will connect the 3.3-mile section that runs from Annie’s Playground to Williams Street in Bel Air with the 1.7-mile section that starts on East Jarrettsville Road in Friends Park and ends on Melrose Lane at Blake’s Venture. Estimated cost of the connection is $8.5 million.
“It’s a complicated project —it’s not as simple as clearing a path in the woods,” Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the Harford County administration, told Aegis staff member Erika Butler last week.
The trail connection is much anticipated among Bel Air town officials and business people, who see it as bringing thousands of additional visitors to the town annually.
Philip Rhudy, one of the owners of Independent Brewing Co. on North Main Street, is one of the business people who expects to benefit. Independent is next to where the trail will cross North Main, and Rhudy already is expanding his outdoor patio area in anticipation of more people stopping in as they traverse the extended trail.
The trail extension through Bel Air to Forest Hill will be built in three sections, and if all goes as planned, the full connection will be completed during 2021.
The first section, the shortest, is also complicated – and costly – because it involves building a safe crossing for North Main Street, a state road. A center island and warning lights will be installed at the crossing, which is expected to be completed by next spring, Mumby said.
Next spring, work also will begin on the section from Main Street to North Avenue, followed a year later by the start of work on the final leg between Main Street and Blakes Venture, which involves stream and wetlands crossings, hence boardwalks and bridges. Each section will open upon its completion, according to the county.
As the trail extension project has moved along from concept stage, to right-of-way acquisition to final design, funding and construction, the Main Street crossing has given us the most pause for concern. It’s a busy stretch of road, day and night and particularly during the morning and afternoon rush hours and possibly more so on Saturdays and Sundays in the mornings and in the afternoons.
Ideally, a pedestrian underpass or overpass should be considered at this crossing, even if it will be expensive to build and maintain. Critics might suggest that the Tollgate Road crossing is at-grade and there hasn’t been a fatality or serious injury in the 10 years the Fallston section of the trail has been open, but there have been close calls and, frankly, the Tollgate crossing has tempted fate.
The traffic volume on North Main Street is considerably more than on Tollgate Road and, when vehicles are constantly stopping for people to cross on the trail, the propensity for accidents to happen will increase, as will the potential for serious injury and property damage.
The county expects to hold a community meeting this fall before ground is broken for the first section of the trail extension. Hopefully, some serious discussion will take place about how best to handle the crossing of Main Street going forward, to make the extended Ma & Pa Trail experience truly extraordinary – and safe.