The State Highway Administration has wiped its slate clean and will be starting anew on plans to repair Route 24 through Rocks State Park – this time promising to work in concert with a contingent of scientists, planners, environmentalists, elected officials and citizen activists.
During the first meeting of the DNR/SHA Advisory Committee for MD 24-Rocks Road, held Thursday night in Bel Air, Kirk McClelland, director of the Office of Highway Development for SHA, announced that SHA would reset its Route 24 proposal and consider new alternatives for the project.
“We’re starting this project over again,” McClelland said. “We’re starting fresh.”
In its initial proposal, SHA planned to deal with the continued erosion of the banks of Deer Creek by moving the roadbed of Route 24 as much as 20 feet away from the water, which would require deforestation and blasting of the rocks in the park.
Once those SHA plans were made public, opposition came swiftly and significantly. The Save the Rocks community group [of which this author was a founding member] quickly organized to inform the public and, in less than two months, Save the Rocks amassed more than 8,600 online supporters and forced the hand of SHA to postpone its Route 24 project until at least this fall. Under SHA’s original proposal, the agency was expected to be bidding out its blasting contract by now and was prepared to close Route 24 for more than three months this summer when the detonations and roadwork were set to begin.
With SHA’s project postponed, Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes, with the blessing of County Executive David Craig, formed the DNR/SHA Advisory Committee for MD 24-Rocks Road – a 20-person group is comprised of members of SHA, Department of Natural Resources, Harford County Division of Agriculture, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, Deer Creek Scenic Advisory Board, Deer Creek Watershed Association, Izaak Walton League, and Save the Rocks.
On Thursday night, Shrodes welcomed the committee, which he called a “dream team” group who would get “a second shot to do it the right way.”
“We may have gone down the wrong path initially, but we have a clean slate and I know we can do this,” he added.
McClelland and the SHA staff in attendance wouldn’t go as far as admitting their agency went down the wrong path with its Route 24 proposal, but did say more could have been done to facilitate a better project.
“If we’re guilty of something, it’s not casting the net wide enough,” McClelland said, acknowledging SHA should have solicited more feedback from Deer Creek and Rocks stakeholders early on in the process.
A Safe Road
Despite earlier claims by SHA that Route 24 through Rocks was a relatively dangerous road in need of realignment, widening, and straightening, McClelland pointed out Thursday that Rocks Road is actually considered a safe road.
From 2006 through 2008, along the entire length of the portion of Route 24 under study (only 2.4 miles), there were 34 crashes. Eleven of those crashes were attributable to speed, six were blamed on inattentive driving, and six due to wet road conditions.
McClelland said Route 24 through Rocks State Park is actually below the statewide average for accidents on two-lane rural roads.
Additionally, only two of those accidents involved trucks, which led McClelland to assert that, “we don’t believe trucks are an issue through this area.”
McClelland also attempted to dispel several rumors he’s heard that Route 24 will be expanded into multiple lanes to accommodate heavy traffic use from the north. He said Route 24 is not identified for any future expansion and all future work on the road will be limited to operational/safety needs and maintenance.
Another topic of controversy was the soil investigation work SHA undertook this winter. SHA has five exploratory borings planned for the northern portion of Route 24 (near St. Clair Bridge Road) and 13 boring planned in the southern section (near Sharon Road). SHA completed three of those borings before work was shut down in late January due to immediate and significant community opposition to the drilling, which included rock coring and the removal of trees.
McClelland said the boring exploration doesn’t presume the road would be shifted, but would provide information on ground water flow and rock stability and must be conducted this summer.
“We need this information regardless what we do,” he added.
Routine guardrail maintenance work has also stopped due to the heavy snowfall.
Soil sampling and guardrail repair aside, SHA’s primary concern on Route 24 is the erosion of Route 24 as Deer Creek scours closer. SHA hopes to address the erosion through this project before the road starts crumbling, at which point it would have to initiate emergency road closure for repairs. McClelland stressed that there is no imminent threat of the road crumbling through Rocks, but said the project must nonetheless proceed.
“We have time to work on it, but we can’t afford to just abandon the project and walk away because eventually it’s going to be a problem,” he added.
SHA is also concerned with surface water ponding on Route 24. McClelland said, even if Route 24 is not shifted, at a minimum there will need to be disturbance to the toe of the hill (via rock cutting) to put in a ditch and pipe runoff under the road and into Deer Creek.
Here were some other notable moments from Thursday’s committee meeting:
– Lee McDaniel of the Deer Creek Scenic River Advisory Board and Deer Creek Watershed Association said that runoff would need to be filtered in some way so as not to spill oil, salt and other pollutants off Route 24 and directly into the creek.
– Deborah Bowers, a Rocks resident and member of Save the Rocks, said an institutional change in SHA is needed, after the agency has continually downplayed the scope and significance of this project to the public. “Rocks has to be respected,” she said.
– Terry Maxwell, Scenic Byways Coordinator for SHA, had several innovative Context Sensitive Solutions he wanted to bring to the project, including ways to preserve viewsheds of the creek and rocks from Route 24. He also suggested, if sections of boulders end up having to be removed, perhaps the rock can be cut back using historic drilling methods to replicate the look of the current rock – right down to the drill marks.
– David Malkowski, SHA Metropolitan District Engineer for Baltimore and Harford Counties, said he climbed in Rocks as a teen, has had family reunions in the park, and fishes Deer Creek. “I am committed and so is the organization, to fix the road, but do it in an environmentally sensitive way,” he added.
– Joseph DaVia, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cautioned that his 25 years of experience in this line of work tell him there will be comprises made on both sides as this project progresses. “Everyone’s going to be mad,” he said.
– Daryl Anthony, DNR’s Central Region Manager, was encouraged by the level of community interest and involvement. “Looking at the Facebook page, for me it’s refreshing that that many people care about what could be happening to that treasure,” he said.
– Deputy DNR Superintendent Chris Bushman sat quietly in the audience for most of the evening, but spoke up at the conclusion of the meeting to address the silence of his agency regarding the Rocks project. Bushman said DNR will remain objective, but must fulfill its duty to protect the resource. Given the confluence of environmental, historical and recreational components of Rocks State Park, its real value is as an irreplaceable cultural resource, Bushman said. “We’re not managing the parks instead of you, we’re managing them for you,” he added.
The next committee meeting will be held in late March or early April.