The State Highway Administration’s plan to construct more than 900 feet of stone wall along the banks of Deer Creek through Rocks State Park – an effort to stabilize and stave off the erosion of Route 24 – has awakened after a year-and-a-half hibernation.
But even with preliminary engineering of the estimated $13 million project now about 70 percent complete, officials concede the size and scope of the project present difficult challenges ahead – and have left some questioning if the project can, or even should, proceed.
“This is a tough and challenging project,” said Jason Ridgway, the new director of the Office of Highway Development for SHA – who inherited the Rocks project after his predecessor retired midstream. “The scale of it may be something we’re not used to,” he added.
When originally proposed to the public in late 2009, the project was estimated to cost $9 million and would have called for, among other things, the detonation of the iconic rock outcrops that give the area it’s name and popularity as well as the realignment, widening, and straightening of Route 24 through the state park. The formation of the Save the Rocks citizens group led to the creation of the MD 24 Citizens Advisory Committee, which has been meeting sporadically in the years since to come up with a better plan to protect rocks, road, and river alike.
The latest plan, as reiterated Wednesday, includes the construction of two walls of stacked stone, a reconstructed roadway, re-grading of the existing Rapids Area parking lot with installation of a new pedestrian crossing area, improved roadside drainage, select landscaping, and relocation of about a dozen Delmarva Power utility poles from Route 24 onto Rocks Station Road, on the other side of Deer Creek.
“We’ve come a long, long way from that first meeting at North Harford High School when everyone was gasping, like deer in headlights,” said Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes, referring to the late-2009 meeting when most of the public learned of the project through a series of informational meetings. “Looking around the room, this is such an improvement, aesthetically, from where we were.”
Not everyone shared the councilman’s sentiments, however.
While it is generally agreed that those measures will prevent further erosion of the stream bank and will protect traffic safety along Route 24, the size and methods of implementation of the protective measures are still very much in question.
The northern most of the two imbricated stone walls is proposed to stretch 500 ft and will range from 6-9 ft tall. The southern wall is proposed at 430-ft long with a height of 3-9 ft. To minimize the visual impact of the size and presence of the boulders, SHA has been looking at local quarries to procure a similar style and color of rock.
Save the Rocks spokesperson Deborah Bowers said the group wanted to be more involved in the final design phase of the project and that she had located a company in southeastern Pennsylvania that quarries the same type of stone that exists at Rocks State Park, known to geologists as Wissahickon formation. The company told Bowers it could supply the stone the project would require.
When complete, the massive stone walls will impact Deer Creek in such a way that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 100-year floodplain map need to be redrawn to indicate a hydraulic increase of 0.36 inches. That is to say, future flood waters will reach 1/3 an inch higher in the immediate area of Rocks along Deer Creek, once the walls are constructed.
SHA is currently looking to hire a construction manager to assist with design of the project, particularly dewatering and diverting the flow of Deer Creek in the construction area. Among the biggest issues still left to be ironed out: constructing a temporary in-stream barrier able to handle one-year storm depth of approximately 10 ft; digging as far as 16 ft below the creek bed to reach bedrock to pour the concrete footers SHA says are necessary to hold the rock walls; and getting the excavated material offsite and construction equipment onsite without any danger to workers or the environment.
Cost is also a concern. The project now carries an estimated $13 million price tag ($6-7 million for construction alone) with 80 percent being paid for by the federal government and the remaining 20 percent being carried by the state. But that hefty price tag may only cover about 1/7 of SHA’s plans in the area. While the current project covers Section A, a stretch of Route 24 from St. Clair Bridge Road to the Rapids Area parking lot, there are still Sections B, C, D, E, F, and G to be considered – which extend to and beyond the boundaries of Rocks State Park along Route 24 to the south.
The tentative timeline for the project has the construction manager being selected this spring or summer, finalization of the design in early 2014, construction beginning in spring/summer 2014, and, after 6-7 months of closure, Route 24 opening back up to traffic in late 2014.
But that timeline glosses over another major obstacle in the project’s path – permit approval from the state and federal regulatory agencies.
Joe DaVia, representing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed his concern about the high level of disturbance proposed by SHA’s creek diversion plan.
“You may be turning a temporary impact into a permanent impact,” he said.
Representatives from the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added another potential wrench into the works – stating they are looking into conducting a detailed survey of a sensitive species of mussel living in the area, which may result in a proposal to relocate to another section of Deer Creek any mussels found within the construction zone.
Scott McGill, a geomorphologist and principal with Ecotone, Inc. – who is also a consulting member of the Save the Rocks citizens group, pointed out that at a previous meeting an SHA engineer had explained that the proposed southern wall was necessitated almost entirely by the construction of the proposed northern wall.
McGill said that data has shown it will take “several hundred years” before the creek would erode to the portion of the roadway proposed to be protected by the southern wall. Further, McGill said that SHA has still not provided the erosion rate data that necessitated this entire project in the first place.
“We’ve been asking for that politely and consistently for two years,” he added.
Asked again about the continued urgency of the project, David Peake, the SHA District 4 Metropolitan District Engineer representing Baltimore and Harford Counties, said, ““We’re concerned about the condition of our roadway. We believe that we’re going to be able to keep this roadway intact for a long time.”
“I believe this project is constructible,” Peake added.
Design Roll map (70%)
The author is a member of Save the Rocks.
Deborah Bowers contributed to this article.