Wider section of I-95 planned

Four lanes to be added between city, White Marsh

Project is to begin in 2006

Tunnel, roadway tolls will pay for the work

April 24, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Responding to the cries of commuters tired of crawling into Baltimore on Interstate 95, the state is to announce plans today to widen the highway by four lanes from the city line to White Marsh.

It's the first segment of a $2 billion I-95 expansion plan that calls for adding lanes to the Delaware line over the next 20 years. Traffic on the road, often choked at rush hour, is expected to grow 40 percent by 2020.

"Even now we're experiencing very heavy congestion," said Tom Osborne, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages I-95 from Baltimore to Delaware. "It's an inconvenience and an impediment to needed economic development."

Officials said the widening will not require the use of state tax dollars because the authority's budget comes from tolls collected on state roadways and tunnels. A recent toll increase on I-95 and other roads from $2 to $4 will bring in $45 million a year, much of it designated for the expansion project.

Construction on the eight-mile segment from the Baltimore line to White Marsh Boulevard is to begin in 2006, with completion by 2008 at the earliest. That portion of I-95, now eight lanes wide, would grow to 12.

For many residents of burgeoning Harford County and northeast Baltimore County, it cannot come soon enough.

"Every morning, that's just about completely bumper-to-bumper," said state Del. Alfred W. Redmer, a Perry Hall Republican. "It's frustrating for residents and commuters, but it's an economic development problem, too."

The State Highway Administration also plans to break ground this summer on a 4-mile extension of White Marsh Boulevard, or Route 43, from just off I-95 to the Martin State Airport area. That $54 million project is expected to open up hundreds of acres for development -- and add more cars to the interstate.

The I-95 expansion plan has been in the works for several years as the transportation authority has developed a 20-year master plan. The plan, which calls for breaking I-95 into four sections for expansion, was approved by the authority last week. The state received approval from the federal government last year to move forward.

The state has not decided if the four lanes to be added to I-95 will be free, general-use lanes or restricted to certain types of vehicles -- such as high occupancy vehicles. The lanes also could carry extra tolls based on the time of day.

That idea -- known as HOT lanes, or high occupancy toll lanes -- opens the lanes to cars with several passengers or drivers of single-passenger cars willing to pay extra money for a less congested lane. The Glendening administration rejected HOT lanes as elitist several years ago, but officials say they are under consideration again.

"We want to look at all practical alternatives to provide the best level of service for I-95," Osborne said. "So at this point, we're open."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan are scheduled to announce today at a White Marsh news conference the adoption of the master plan and their intention to implement it as soon as possible. The first part of the expansion is to cost about $750 million.

Then, over the next 10 to 20 years, the plan calls for adding two lanes in each direction of I-95 from White Marsh to Route 24 in Harford County. From there, one lane eventually would be added each way to the Delaware line. Increased tolls will probably be needed to cover those costs.

Officials said they do not expect to demolish homes or buildings as part of the project.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said the I-95 expansion will "pay off in jobs and increased quality of life for our citizens."

He added, "Opening up this traffic bottleneck will be a tremendous benefit to the people who live and work in Baltimore County."

But some state lawmakers, who have criticized the amount of transportation dollars headed to the Washington region, said this expansion plan is not what Baltimore needs now. They said the state's priority should be boosting mass transit, not roadway capacity.

"This is the wrong road to take," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "We can't continue to add lanes to our highways. Pretty soon we're going to pave over a good portion of our good neighborhoods."

McIntosh said the plan will exacerbate sprawl and encourage people to live in Delaware and Pennsylvania and commute to Maryland. She also said poor and middle-class people who live and work in Baltimore would see no benefit.

Still, transportation officials said that if the entire region is to thrive, they cannot let I-95 turn into a parking lot. By 2020, the portion of the highway in Baltimore County is expected to carry 231,000 vehicles daily -- or about as much as the west side of the Beltway carries today.

"I-95 is the key north-south interstate running through Maryland," Osborne said. "It serves the entire East Coast and is vital to the port, to BWI and to planned growth within the region. For us, this is a great milestone, and we're very excited."

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