Giants of the Beltway

April 05, 1993

It would have been fitting if the electronic message boards that dot Baltimore's Beltway were excused from their routine of flashing weather advisories or accident alerts, even for just half a day, to beam a tribute to John Benjamin Funk and Malcolm Howard Dill.

Messrs. Funk and Dill, ages 87 and 94 respectively, passed away within days of one another recently. Although their names are recognizable to few Marylanders, the great achievement of their labors touches people here every day and had a profound effect on the shape of Central Maryland.

Mr. Funk was a former secretary of state who oversaw the building of the Beltway as head of the State Roads Commission. Under Gov. J. Millard Tawes, Mr. Funk directed every major highway project in the Free State from 1959 to 1966.

Mr. Dill, Baltimore County's first planning director, also was a major influence in the Beltway's development. He has been credited with coining the phrase, "Beltway," although most Americans now think of the word in terms of Washington's ring road, which followed Baltimore's.

When conceived in the late 1940s, the project had modest ambitions. The road was proposed as a way to link Interstate 83 to the then-planned Jones Falls Expressway without slicing through Riderwood and north Baltimore neighborhoods. By the Beltway's opening in 1962, though, Marylanders regarded it as a harbinger of a high-tech space age -- "The ease of Beltway driving. . . may lull you to sleep," the roads commission warned.

The Beltway got too popular. It repeatedly outstrips traffic projections, and already carries volumes that planners didn't anticipate until 2015.

More than just a conduit for cars, however, the road facilitated the growth of "edge cities," the booming bedroom communities of Owings Mills, White Marsh, Bel Air and Columbia. Among projects that have had the most dramatic impact on Maryland -- the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Interstates 95, 83 and 70, the Harbor Tunnel -- the Beltway may be the granddaddy of them all.

To be sure, the environmental impact of 153,000 cars a day and 52 miles of asphalt, traversing farms and wetlands, is immense. With projects such as light rail and proposals for "California car" emission standards, the state is trying to relieve some of the worst quality air in the nation. On the other hand, Maryland's economic strength is due to its transportation access.

So, while trapped in your next traffic jam on I-695, you might not thank John Funk or Malcolm Dill at that moment, but you cannot deny their profound impact on and contribution to the development of this region.

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