Sprawl on the dotted line Scenes of change: Mile marker 76 on Interstate 95 marks the bedrooming of Bel Air.

January 06, 1998

MILE MARKER No. 76 is indistinguishable from all the other mile markers on the John J. Kennedy Highway, a small white sign with red numerals off Interstate 95.

There are other signs with greater significance in Harford County: the historical marker that points travelers to Tudor Hall, for example, the ancestral home of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, or the highway signs of more recent vintage advertising the Ripken baseball museum and duck decoy museum, part of the effort to rejuvenate Aberdeen and Havre de Grace with tourism.

But Marker 76 has seen ample history and recent change of its own. The sign sits south of Exit 77, the main interchange to the "development envelope" where officials 20 years ago directed business growth in Harford.

In 1987, about 24,000 northbound vehicles passed this point daily. That's grown by half as much to 36,000 today. Officials anticipated some increase after the opening of a new Route 24 in the late 1980s to replace a two-lane road that was renamed Route 924. But the size of the influx took them by surprise.

Officials had to paint dotted white lines a mile from the exit itself to separate the rush-hour traffic that slows to a crawl a few feet away from the other lanes of the interstate whoosing by at 65 mph or more.

It's a potentially deadly arrangement, but it will exist until at least 2002 when the state adds a lane as far as the next exit to the north, in Riverside.

Also visible from marker 76 is a stream of white light in the sky, a phenomenon wags might call the "wal-marta borealis." It comes from the warehouse stores, fast-food eateries, storage yard and multiplex theater sprung up off the interstate. A grassroots movement blocked a shopping mall near this exit a decade ago, but retail development arrived anyway, in a more piecemeal, less desirable, fashion.

Eileen Rehrmann, the Harford County executive now running for governor, has occasionally lamented the hodge-podge planning at the interchange that cost the suburbanizing jurisdiction a chance to have a more alluring corporate gateway.

Examples of suburban growth outstripping government's ability to anticipate it or corral it riddle the region. At mile marker 76, you find one of them.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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