I-95 is Harford's Main Street

Lifeline: Residents take the superhighway to get to shopping and recreation, and businesses prize access to it.

October 27, 2002|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FOR travelers, Interstate 95 is little more than the quickest route through Harford County to destinations up and down the Eastern seaboard.

But for many of those who live in Harford, I-95 is more than just a highway. It's their Main Street.

Skirting the entire eastern boundary of Harford, I-95 is a convenient route for commuters heading north or south to work and for county residents seeking a night out in Baltimore or an afternoon of shopping in White Marsh. Its five exits provide quick access to county dining, shopping, recreation, entertainment and historic sites.

And with its strategic location near major business markets on the East Coast, I-95 is a gateway for new county businesses and a spark for economic development and revitalization.

"Because of the ideal location of I-95, businesses want to locate here and new citizens want to reside here," said Joseph P. Kocy, director of the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning. "It's safe to say that I-95 has been, is and will be a catalyst for rapid growth and development in this county."

I-95 serves as the western boundary of Harford County's designated growth area along the U.S. 40 corridor, where planners want most residential, commercial and industrial development to occur.

"In the last 20 years or so, 80 percent of the county's growth has been concentrated in this development envelope," said Pete Gutwald, manager of the comprehensive planning division of the planning and zoning department.

A key attraction for new businesses is access to the interstate. The roadway makes it easier for employees to get to their jobs, customers to get to businesses and products to be trucked in and out quickly.

"We're always selling proximity to I-95," said Jay Thomas Sadowski, director of the county's Office of Economic Development.

The county has 25 business parks, most in the I-95/U.S. 40 corridor. Warehouses and distribution centers that depend on trucking predominate, but recent efforts at economic diversification are focusing on office space for technology companies. I-95 and U.S. 40 are roughly parallel and a few miles apart.

Battelle Memorial Institute, a research institute, has purchased 92 acres at the HEAT Center, a research and development park off I-95 near Aberdeen, for a technical center to serve the mid-Atlantic region. Its first facility, scheduled for completion late next month, will include 16 biology and chemistry laboratories, an office complex and a conferencing complex.

"We looked at where we could best service our customers," said Warren Mullins, vice president of business development for Battelle. "This location on I-95 made it easy for them to get to us and for us to get to them."

Homebuyers also consider proximity to I-95 when shopping for a house.

"People want to know how close they are to Baltimore and whether they can get there in a reasonable amount of time," said Dave Stromberg, past president of the Harford County Association of Realtors and a Realtor with Century 21 Diana Realty. "The pain limit for most people seems to be a 45-minute to an hour drive. Harford County falls within that."

But the highway's convenience also has earned it a measure of notoriety as the choice of drug traffickers headed up and down the Maine-to-Florida route.

Last year, Maryland State Police made 174 drug-related arrests on I-95. In the first nine months of this year, more than 120 arrests were made, according to Sgt. Thornnie Rouse of the state police.

The road's local history dates to the 1960s, when it was seen as a way to alleviate bumper-to-bumper traffic jams on U.S. 40 and Route 7.

The Maryland/Delaware portion of the roadway was dedicated by President John F. Kennedy and is named for him, noted Walter Woodford, a board member of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Woodford, 77, shares a long history with I-95. As a youth, he sat in the traffic jams that led to the highway's construction. During 23 years as an employee of what is now the Maryland Department of Transportation, he worked on the planning, construction coordination and eventual widening of the highway. Woodford's involvement with I-95 continues today as he helps set policy for its maintenance and operation.

Built to be a self-supporting toll road, I-95 once had entrance ramp tolls in Harford that were eliminated after the public opposed them. Today, no tolls exist in Harford. The nearest toll plaza is in Cecil County.

The Maryland House Travel Plaza, at milepost 82 between the north and southbound lanes of I-95, is a popular Harford rest area that serves about 4 million travelers a year, according to Vern Bingham, general manager of Maryland House.

Local development officials view the road as a vital tool in attracting those interested in more than just a visit.

"I-95 provides us with the ability to foster quality redevelopment efforts," said Robin Lang, chair of the Harford County Economic Development Advisory Board and president of the Route 40 Business Association.

"It's the link that allows us to bring in new business," Lang said. "If you can get to I-95, you can get to Harford County."

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