Washington bypass plan is shelved

February 08, 1991|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's transportation chief said yesterday that a proposal for a new superhighway to bypass Washington was "on the shelf for the next five or more years" because of money problems.

"If it isn't dead, it's fast asleep," added Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer. He noted that his department's request for a new gasoline sales tax and higher motor vehicle fees wouldn't raise enough by 1996 to pay the state's share of construction of an interstate-sized Washington bypass, under consideration since 1987.

Six alternate routes were proposed for the project, including one that would create a Baltimore bypass using U.S. 50 and U.S. 301. The various plans were expected to cost between $1.4 billion and $3.4 billion.

Secretary Lighthizer, in a telephone interview, said the proposal had not been shelved on its merits. "We never really got to that," he said. "It's not financially feasible to build it in the near future."

Mr. Lighthizer's comments came several hours after Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said at a news conference here that he wanted to "put the last nail in the coffin" of any bypass plan by releasing two studies and an opinion poll.

One of those studies, by Resource Management Consultants Inc. of Washington, said bypass construction would spur suburban sprawl on up to 1.1 million acres of rural land. The other criticized as inadequate a recent $2 million environmental study of the bypass proposals, paid for by the highway departments in Virginia and Maryland.

Bypass plans were drawn up in reaction to mammoth tie-ups in the Washington region, which one recent study called the third-most congested area of the country.

The foundation's poll, conducted in November by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, showed only 46.4 percent of residents supported the bypass in some form, while 16.6 percent were opposed and 37 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Earlier polls for the DO IT Coalition, a Washington group promoting the bypass, showed that about two-thirds of area residents supported it.

Mr. Baker and other foundation officials said a bypass would undermine regional efforts to direct growth to selected areas and away from farms and forests, preventing harmful runoff into the Chesapeake.

Group officials warned they were ready to file a lawsuit to block further work on the bypass. But Mr. Baker said he expected the plan to collapse because of growing opposition.

Jerry S. Sachs, vice chairman of the DO IT Coalition, said yesterday that supporters wanted a long-term commitment to build a bypass and to set aside a route.

He added that the road was planned to relieve congestion on the Capitol Beltway, not to promote area growth, which he called inevitable. A properly designed highway, he said, could help direct new construction to where it would hurt the environment the least.

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