County shouldn't be so eager to burn its rural bridges

ON THE BAY

Differences: Residents battle to keep spans narrow and suited to the landscape.

October 10, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WHAT'S the purpose of a bridge? To carry a load and move traffic? Or to carry the eye and move the spirit? And a road - is speed the only limit worth enforcing?

These are not burning environmental questions of our age, but they should be. Faster than we are losing water and air quality - and more irreversibly - we are losing beauty and character from our landscapes.

It was a visit to the one-lane bridge on Dunk Freeland Road in northern Baltimore County that triggered this loss-of-bucolia jag. You come upon it, shaded by big, old red maples and black walnuts, as you descend a long, gentle curve to the riffled course of Little Deer Creek, meandering east toward the Susquehanna River.

I can't explain the deep pleasure aroused by such sinuosity of road and stream. But from spiral nebulae to the shells of snails, from the cycles of seasons to the ebb and flood of ice ages and the tides, from the wanderings of the Nile to those of frost melting down a windowpane, it does seem the bent of the universe to move in nonlinear, unangled ways.

Maybe when the Dunk Freeland bridge was built, and the country lane first paved, nearly a century ago, someone groused about "modern progress." But now it seems to belong to the landscape, a mellow meshing of natural and human systems.

So when Ann Brunson, who has lived by the bridge for nine years, saw county surveyors last summer and found what they had in mind, "it was a complete shock."

The old bridge, all agree, needs repair, but the county roads people were going to give Brunson and her 12 neighbors on Dunk Freeland much more - or maybe less - than that. They planned to eliminate the curve, taking out big trees and hedges, and installing a bridge six feet wider than the old one's 20 feet, which is not quite wide enough for two cars to pass.

At 26 feet, the $675,000 project would also qualify for 80 percent federal bridge safety funding. It would be faster, roomier, safer, the county said.

It would be ugly, Brunson and her husband, Merrill, countered. It would bring Baltimore County's rural northern third, the so-called "north county," a little closer to looking like the rest of suburban Maryland.

The story - which is only chapter one of a larger issue - ends mostly happily. The Brunsons enlisted neighbors, put up signs, protested to the county. They contacted north county Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who has downzoned more than 18,000 acres in the last decade to protect farming and the area's rural nature.

The county, says Jim Arford, chief of bridge design, will keep the road as is. It has received dispensation from state highway officials to widen the bridge to 24 feet instead of 26, and still get federal bridge money.

"There's no law that says we can't go narrower and still use the federal bridge money," says Ralph Manna, assistant chief of the State Highway Administration's Bridge Design Division.

Maryland gets about $12 million a year in such funds, and Baltimore County, with more bridges than any other county, gets about $2 million of that. But "practically speaking, we don't like to go below 24 feet," Manna says.

Which brings us back to this: What is a bridge for? I understand where the highway engineers are coming from. They bear responsibility for unsafe roads and bridges. You have to have standards. But not one size fits all.

If there is any place in Maryland that has emphatically endorsed retention of the rural landscape, it's the north county. The county master plan endorses that, and the residents who keep re-electing McIntire by wide margins endorse that.

He does not see single-lane bridges as traffic bottlenecks. "They are great traffic calmers," he says. "The concern is, they widen a bridge, then they widen the road, then the traffic goes up, speeds go up, more development comes in."

He was shocked to find that the county has more than a dozen little north county bridges on its immediate list for widening.

Arford says $10 million in federal bridge safety money is at stake - allocate it or lose it by early winter. McIntire argues there that there are more important things in life than getting federal funds for projects citizens don't want or need.

"The real answer is for the county to draft rural road and bridge design standards to keep their character and context the same," says Jack Dillon, head of the private Valleys Planning Council in Towson. "Fix them when needed, but leave them the way they are."

He offers a recent example: Residents of two-mile long Geist Road, between Falls and Mantua Mill roads, awakened to find it newly paved, including its old, gravelly, grassy shoulders.

An improvement? Dillon says the old shoulders were an important fall-back exercise track for trainers when crusted snow kept horses from the fields.

Someday the county may value the small, the slow, the curved. Meantime, it's a fight, bridge by bridge.

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