Road plans put on hold

Regional planners table $37 million in proposals

`Good decision,' says EPA

Group will include 1999 data in request for federal funding

November 17, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In an abrupt about-face, regional planners are putting off $37 million in road projects until they can figure out how to handle the extra traffic without making Greater Baltimore's severe air pollution worse.

The decision averts a showdown between federal regulators and the regional Transportation Steering Committee over Greater Baltimore's air pollution, which ranks among the worst in the nation.

The 11th-hour move means delays in approval for roads needed to feed the planned Arundel Mills mall near Route 100 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and a General Motors plant to be built in White Marsh. But if these approvals come by next spring, as expected, officials involved with both projects said that would not interfere with their construction schedules.

"It is a particularly good decision for the environment," said Marcia Spink, associate director of air programs with the Environmental Protection Agency regional office in Philadelphia. "It also gives these road projects more certainty."

Last summer, planners discovered they had underestimated the region's vehicle emissions by relying on 1990 traffic data gathered by the state Motor Vehicle Administration. More recent data from 1996 showed an increase in vehicles -- particularly higher-polluting sport utility vehicles -- and emissions. The figures showed that cars and trucks in the Baltimore region were spewing an extra 3 to 15 tons of ozone-producing chemicals into the air every day beyond limits allowed by the federal Clean Air Act.

To qualify for federal highway funds, the region must prove that its new road projects will not worsen ground-level ozone pollution and that the region complies with the Clean Air Act. Baltimore could qualify for the projects only by using the 1990 numbers.

Besides the GM plant and the 200-store Arundel Mills, the pollution problem threatened to snag a beltway widening in Anne Arundel County and two Howard County projects -- widening of Route 32 and construction of an interchange at U.S. 29 and Hopkins-Gorman Road.

With this string of projects poised to move forward, the committee made a disputable decision. Its members -- a powerful group of elected officials that approves regional road projects -- voted recently to apply for federal approval of the new roads using the misleading older data.

Critics denounced the decision as unethical. Environmental groups prepared to challenge the move in court, potentially stalling the roads indefinitely. In recent weeks, signals from federal agencies offered little encouragement to the committee. The group apparently thought the agencies would be more flexible about the 1990 figures, said Spink of the EPA.

"They knew there was a lot of opposition," she said. "We were telling them it was not going to be easy. I think finally there was some listening going on."

"The EPA expressed concerns, and we had the same concerns, but we wanted to see their [application] before we took any action," said Nelson Castellanos, Maryland division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

Members of the committee said they changed their minds primarily because the Maryland Department of the Environment is finishing work on an up-to-date report of vehicle emissions. Members said they plan to use 1999 motor vehicle data, with information from the department's new report, to revise their transportation plan and better meet the Clean Air requirements.

"I think the concern was that we take a positive step," said Stoney Fraley, vice chairman of the committee. Rather than continue to go forward using the old data, they decided to use the best available information, he said.

Pressures from critics and federal agencies had little to do with it, he said. "I'm not going to say no one was worried and it didn't pass our minds, but good thinking doesn't necessarily result from fear of a lawsuit."

The potential economic consequences also contributed, he said. The Mills Corp., the Arlington, Va., company that is developing the mall, and GM "needed a signal that we were going to be able to deal with this issue," said Fraley.

Officials at both companies say they are confident the roads will go through. Richard C. Mike Lewin, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, said the delays should not slow down any of the projects.

"In August it did look as though the Federal Highway Administration might have moved to [bring]down the curtain," he said. "Clearly now there's been positive movement."

Environmental groups applauded the decision, but said their support depends on what steps the committee takes next. It may add bike paths or transit programs to its mix of projects or delay or cut some road plans. The group expects to have a plan by late February.

Pub Date: 11/17/99

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