Route 3 plans detoured

Environmental concerns about Patuxent River delays overhaul

February 09, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

New concerns about the environmental effects on the Patuxent River watershed - including those caused by a proposed Wal-Mart in Crofton - have prompted state and federal agencies to delay approvals on the long-awaited overhaul of Route 3, state highway officials said.

The Maryland Department of the Environment, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have begun re-examining state plans to construct a bridge over the Patuxent River and a "flyover" ramp linking Route 3 with Route 450.

While state officials had previously expected to secure approvals by last fall and start construction by 2009 on the 9-mile stretch between Gambrills and Bowie, now they say federal highway officials may not sign off on the proposal until the summer of 2008.

On that timetable, construction may not begin until 2010 - and that is only if the funding is found for the $700 million project.

Plans call for building a pedestrian-friendly boulevard on the Anne Arundel portion of Route 3, which is about 6 1/2 miles. The remainder, located in Prince George's County, would be constructed as a freeway. Talk of a Route 3 upgrade dates to the 1970s.

Nicole Washington, a project manager for the State Highway Administration, noted that the Army Corps has concerns about anticipated traffic volume at the intersection of Cronson and Crawford Boulevards. She added that regulators have questions about state plans to build over sensitive wetlands near the Route 3-Route 450 interchange, near the confluence of the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers.

She also said "one of the areas of concern in the area was the development of the Wal-Mart."

The 121,000-square-foot store on 20 acres near the Little Patuxent, she said, has played a factor in spurring regulators "to take another look" at the environmental impacts of the road project.

Representatives associated with the Wal-Mart plan questioned why their project was being singled out for its environmental impact, given that the county is reviewing at least 15 projects along the Route 3 corridor.

Developer William D. Berkshire, who owns the land where Wal-Mart is seeking to build, is seeking a permit to fill in 3,500 cubic yards of non-tidal wetlands.

He said the wetlands are man-made excavations on an abandoned sand and gravel site near the river. According to environmental reports he has seen, Berkshire said the impact of the Wal-Mart on the watershed would be "extremely minimal" and cause virtually no runoff into the river.

"On the three or four miles on Route 3, where there is 900,000 square feet of development going up along that road, how [the state] could isolate on Wal-Mart as the only player is puzzling to me," Berkshire said.

Wal-Mart recently resubmitted plans for a store along Route 3 that would be more than 20,000 square feet smaller than the original proposal - a move in response to residents' concerns about the environmental impacts.

Wal-Mart's first plan called for an impact of 24,987 square feet of non-tidal wetlands, said Chanel Weaver, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps. She said the revised plans would impact 19,150 square feet of such wetlands.

County Executive John R. Leopold and council member G. James "Jamie" Benoit, who represents the area that includes the proposed Wal-Mart, said any further delays on the Route 3 project were unacceptable and again voiced their opposition to the Wal-Mart.

"We should embrace no initiative that further delays the Route 3 traffic improvements," said Leopold, who ranks an overhaul of Route 3 as of one of his top four transportation priorities.

County Councilman Edward R. Reilly, however, said he is "pleased that the state and federal regulatory bodies are looking at this. It pleases me that they are taking their time. ... It should not be rushed to judgment."

Reilly, a Crofton Republican, said the delay on the Route 3 planning might be a blessing for the county and state, giving both more time to figure out how to pay for the reconstruction. He said that funding options, such as creating a special taxing district, would be pushed off until after the budget season in May.

Leopold said he is supportive of a special taxing district, which could jump-start payment for initial construction stages, such as at the intersections of Route 3 and Route 175 and Route 3 and Route 424.

"The Route 3 improvement is so important to maintaining the quality of life here," Benoit said. "It should come at almost any expense."

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