Rural bridges divide rather than connect


For almost a century, a bridge on Mount Zion Road carried travelers over Piney Run as they made their way across the northern Baltimore County countryside. These days, however, sawhorses with bright orange stripes block drivers from the crossing, and cars are detoured to other rural roads.

Something has to be done about the aging and deteriorating bridge, everyone seems to agree. But some say that the bigger bridges the county plans to build on small country roads don't fit the setting.

The bridge on Mount Zion Road is one of five in the rural Upperco area of the county that are set to be either repaired or replaced. County officials say the new bridges should be built to handle SUVs and the like for decades to come.

"We're just trying to build a bridge that's going to last the next 100 years like the current bridge that was used for the 1900s type of cars," said Edward C. Adams Jr., the county's public works director.

"For today's vehicles, I don't think we're stretching the imagination."

Members of a land-preservation group, the Valleys Planning Council, and some residents say that the look of narrower bridges blends more easily into the landscape. Those bridges, they say, act as traffic calming devices, prompting drivers to slow down. Wider bridges, they say, would only encourage more motorists to drive more dangerously through the country.

"Excess capacity breeds other excesses - like speed and volume," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council. "It doesn't make sense to use highway standards on rural roads."

The Mount Zion Road Bridge over Piney Run was built in 1909. In those days, horse-drawn vehicles and steam threshers traversed the area, historian John McGrain said.

The county has about 450 bridges, and each receives regular inspections, officials said. After one such routine inspection found significant structural deterioration on Mount Zion Road Bridge No. 65, it was closed, and detour signs went up.

Officials are evaluating the bridge to decide whether it can be repaired or, more likely, will have to be replaced. The current bridge is a little more than 16 feet wide. The county would like to design the next bridge to be about 25 feet wide.

Not too far away, neighbors of an 80-year-old bridge on Trenton Road have expressed similar concerns about plans for a new bridge that would be about 30 feet wide - or about twice as wide as the current bridge.

Frank Peltzer said he has lived near the Trenton Road Bridge for about 50 years and hopes to negotiate a compromise with the county that would save some of the trees and shrubbery that the county would like to take.

"They're not beautiful oak trees, but it's beautiful to me," he said.

County officials say there are three additional bridges in the Upperco area in need of replacement or repair.

The project at Mount Zion Road faces another complication. The land on both sides of the bridge is under conservation easements. The county must negotiate with the Maryland Environmental Trust, a public land trust that seeks to preserve farmland and other open spaces, to obtain land to widen the bridge and the roadway leading to it.

The two sides met this month, but no agreement was reached.

"It's a problem the department has to face," Adams said.

Ned Halle, a member of the MET board who lives near the Mount Zion bridge, said a new bridge should have a look that is appropriate for the rural area of the county.

"There are bridges that add to the county feeling, then there are bridges that take away from the county feeling," said Halle, who used to drive over the Mount Zion Road Bridge daily. "There's a real opportunity to do something nice there. I just think that there's room for a compromise here, and it should be worked out without a lot of unpleasantness."

Adams says they will explore the idea of selecting materials to give the bridge a suitable appearance.

Moore, from the Valleys Planning Council, said she does not like the idea of a bridge with a highway-style guardrail.

Last November, the organization released a study it had commissioned on rural roads that concluded that larger roads bring more traffic and faster cars. Keeping roads and bridges narrow could help preserve the country feel of an area, planning council officials and the consultants they hired said.

"We need to be slowing people down," Moore said. "There are driveways, school buses, horseback riders, cyclists."

She said the county should adopt the standards recommended in the report - or build a new bridge on Mount Zion Road that is similar in width to the one it would replace.

"There is no problem with the way it is," she said.

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