Charles Connector Falls a Year Behind

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

An ambitious, multi-year plan to upgrade and expand Charles County roads has resulted in several improved streets reopening in the past several weeks, but the county's flagship project is more than a year behind schedule because of environmental concerns.

County officials said they were pleased by the efficient pace of several major road projects around Charles, including an extension of Middletown Road and upgrades to Piney Church Road in front of Regency Furniture Stadium, which is slated to open as the home of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs baseball team Friday. But questions remain about the fate of the county's largest road project, the cross-county connector, which would cross the environmentally sensitive Mattawoman Creek watershed.

County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said the controversy over the cross-county connector had overshadowed major improvements to other county roads. He cited the widening and other upgrades to Piney Church Road and Billingsley Road in St. Charles, which will ease traffic heading to the new stadium, which can hold up to 6,000 people.

"I don't know that citizens are aware of all the roads that have reopened recently," Cooper said. "It can be frustrating to have your route closed for so long, but I hope people realize that we've really made progress."

According to the county's spreadsheet of road improvement projects, nearly a dozen upgraded roads or road extensions have opened within the past eight months. Middletown Road is scheduled to be completed by June. The projects also include sections of Rosewick Road and Talbot Street in La Plata and Western Parkway in Waldorf.

A significant number of projects remain in the works, including sections of Piney Church Road, Western Parkway, Acton Lane and Radio Station Road. John Stevens, the county's chief of capital services, said nearly all projects are operating on schedule.

"For the most part, things are looking good," Stevens said. "There's been an enormous amount of progress made."

The major exception remains the cross-county connector, which is designed to provide easy travel between Route 5 south of Waldorf and Indian Head Highway. The project, which would cost about $70 million, is on hold as the county awaits environmental rulings from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the corps determines that a full environmental impact study is necessary, the fate of the final section of the project could be in doubt.

The commissioners voted this month to redirect $945,000 from the final phase of the connector to the Rosewick Road upgrade project, citing delays on the connector's construction. County Planning Director Melvin C. Beall Jr. told the commissioners he thinks the county will receive less expensive bids when the connector project wins approval, in part because of the slowing construction market.

Environmentalists have long battled the county over the highway, which would cut through wetlands and over the Mattawoman Creek. Bonnie Bick, a member of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, said the six-mile section linking Middletown Road in Waldorf to Indian Head Highway in Bryans Road would endanger the creek, which is considered one of Maryland's most environmentally treasured and productive waterways.

"Compromising the environmental health of the Mattawoman is not and should not be an option in building a new road," Bick said.

Bick and other environmental advocates are also concerned that the road's completion would enable rapid residential growth in the immediate area, further jeopardizing plant and animal life, as well as water quality in the creek because of increased runoff from paved surfaces in subdivisions.

Some groups have argued that the last phase of the connector is unnecessary, saying commuters can travel north on Middletown and connect to Route 228 on the way to Indian Head Highway.

County planners said that some impact on the wetlands is unavoidable, but added that they are taking every possible precaution to preserve as much of the area as possible. The commissioners have long argued the necessity of the cross-county connector to improve the quality of life for county residents who commute to the District.

"We're balancing the needs of our drivers with the environmental aspect," Cooper said. "It's a growing community, and we need more roads to handle the traffic."

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