State gives cold shoulder to plea for longer grass alongside I-95


May 16, 1994

Just because the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence doesn't mean it has to be shorter on both sides of the highway.

At least that is Omar Siddique's philosophy, horticulturally speaking. The Perry Hall resident recently wrote us to complain about what he sees as an ecologically unhealthy practice of cutting grass short along the shoulders of Interstate 95.

"Why is this inane practice followed?" Mr. Siddique asks. "It can't be for visibility's sake. There is nothing to see 15 or 20 feet beyond the edge of the paved shoulder."

"Additionally, it's beneficial to have as much vegetation as possible around roads, since it helps to muffle noise, absorb pollution, and helps lower ambient air temperatures.

"Removing this vegetation also makes the roads look that much uglier. And the last time I checked, the state government didn't exactly have money to burn."

This letter hit Intrepid Commuter like a bag of grass clippings. We have already begun practicing our Saturday speech: "Cupcake, we can't mow the lawn today. It might raise the ambient air temperature."

Nevertheless, Mr. Siddique raises an interesting point. It costs money to mow the lawn. And when you're responsible for more than 16,000 acres of it, as the State Highway Administration is, that adds up to a budget of $4.8 million.

To save money the state could:

A. Ignore the grass, as Intrepid Commuter does, informing neighbors that we are simply breeding threatened strains of Kentucky fescue.

B. Raise sheep, a move likely to raise the road-kill count.

C. Pave it, baby.

Fortunately, David J. Malkowski keeps a clearer head. As chief of highway maintenance, he's the guy who decides what gets mowed.

The easy answer to Mr. Siddique's question is that the SHA must adhere to Federal Highway Administration standards. Interstates must have a clear zone with grass clipped, free of trees and brush 30 feet beyond the white edge line, including the 10-foot-wide shoulders.

So why the federal policy? According to Mr. Malkowski, there are four reasons to mow: To create safe zones where errant cars won't hit anything harder than a blade of grass, to allow drivers a clearer view of traffic, to keep signs visible and to improve drainage of roads.

That last item is probably the most critical in those areas beyond the shoulders. Water is the greatest enemy to roads, and drainage ditches are crucial to minimizing the damage. The last thing a maintenance worker wants is vegetation that could clog drainage.

"As grass grows, bushes and small trees grow, and before you know it, you have reforestation that encroaches on the shoulder," Mr. Malkowski says.

Over the past several years, the agency actually has been cutting back its mowing. Officials estimate the SHA has saved about $400,000 a year by not cutting more than 3,000 acres around various state highways and secondary roads.

Incidentally, SHA crews don't mow grass to golf-course specifications. Grass is generally kept 4 to 10 inches tall, compared with the 3-inch standard of most lawns. An average highway median is trimmed five times each year.

U.S. 50 commuters offered a dim view

A light switched on in Walter Hill's head when few could be seen above his favorite highway.

The Pasadena resident works in Washington, commuting each day on U.S. 50, including its rather complex interchange at Interstate 95/Capital Beltway.

When that portion of the highway was rebuilt several years ago, "fancy light fixtures" were installed that don't seem to work now, Mr. Hill says.

"It seems like a waste of money to have them up there and not JTC use them, and it's also a little more dangerous," he says.

SHA officials confirm that quite a few lights are not working at U.S. 50 and I-95. The problem, says SHA spokesman Chuck Brown, appears to be a glitch in the wiring.

For those unfamiliar with the area, we're talking about 10 of what the SHA calls "high mast" poles, utility posts 100 feet tall with four to six lights at the top. Many, and in some cases all, of the lights on each pole are on the fritz (a technical term we experts like to throw around).

In addition, there are 40 regular overhead lights in that area. Mr. Brown estimates that "15 to 20" of these, which are wired through the same control box as the high-mast lights, are also on the blink.

The lights were installed in the past two years, but the problem has developed only over the past three months, Mr. Brown says.

An SHA electrical contractor is investigating.

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