Snag delays road design for speedway White Marsh Blvd. studies are required by federal agencies

'It's frustrating'

Track developers must decide if they can wait for years

October 21, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As developers of Essex International Speedway weigh proposed restrictions on the project, a crucial highway link has been delayed again -- a move that could affect their decision on whether to build the racetrack.

A regulatory snag over planning for a $65 million extension of White Marsh Boulevard will push design of the road back by at least five months, say Baltimore County officials, who last week proposed other restrictions on the speedway.

"Delay is a big issue, on that or other elements," Middle River Racing Association project manager Christopher Lencheski said.

At the very least, the delay would put more pressure on the track's developers, who are deciding whether they can afford to wait the three to four years needed to build roads the county wants.

County officials are feeling pressure, too, because they say the road is needed to develop the 1,100-acre, industrially zoned site and produce jobs for the economically depressed east side.

County officials said last week that to win zoning approval and full county support for the $100 million speedway project, developers must agree to build a half-mile section of White Marsh Boulevard north into the site from Eastern Boulevard, and to extend Campbell Boulevard.

The entire 3.5-mile highway extension -- from Route 40 to Eastern Boulevard -- need not be finished before the track can open in its first phase, about 55,000 seats. But it would be needed for full expansion to 110,000 seats.

"No matter what happens to the track, this [White Marsh Boulevard extension] is important for the future of the county," said Michael H. Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Davis called the regulatory snag -- a repetitive cycle of planning at the site -- "ridiculous."

Because state planning for the road's final alignment was never completed during the last flurry of activity a decade ago, federal regulatory agencies are insisting on a new round of studies on more than a dozen possible routes.

That caused state officials to cancel a public meeting tomorrow on route alternatives. The hearing won't be held until spring, State Highway Administration spokeswoman Valerie Edgar said.

"It's frustrating and disappointing," Patricia A. Winter, director of the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce said of the new delay. White Marsh Boulevard "is crucial to development of that site. You would think somebody would have their finger on the pulse of this project, but they didn't."

Charles R. "Bob" Olsen, the county's public works director, remembers the last cycle of activity when, as a state highway official, he held hearings on the road.

The plan then was to build Worldbridge, a $100 million Asian theme park and commercial center on the land. What New York developer Dean Gitter needed in addition to investors and county zoning approval was White Marsh Boulevard.

One section of the road, from the Beltway to Interstate 95, opened in January 1993. But the last piece, 3.5 miles through an area with more than 300 acres of wetlands, remains unbuilt.

When Worldbridge died for lack of financing and the county's refusal to provide zoning in 1991, planning for that final section of the road died with it.

Federal standards have changed since Worldbridge died and environmental rules are tougher. Edgar said the federal agencies that collectively provide 80 percent of highway construction money decided the best approach is to re-examine everything that was done before.

"Elected officials and citizens seem to sense the urgency far more than the bureaucrats do," said state Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat. "And federal bureaucrats -- they just don't seem to sense the urgency of anything."

But Douglas Garman, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, said, "We approach all these projects as a balancing of development with nature."

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, all the federal agencies concerned with environment felt the state should examine a larger study area, he said. That would allow officials to better gauge future development and to make sure a final road alignment is the best one.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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