Trust us. That's what Maryland and Virginia highway officials are saying to citizens in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties in their environmental study of the proposed Washington bypass.
The draft report, released in April, tells Maryland residents that there would be no significant environmental impact if an eastern bypass is built and that any adverse effect on wetlands and streams could be mitigated. It's good for the economy, says the report, though just how good isn't documented. The multi-billion-dollar bypass is exactly what taxpayers need, say state officials.
As the president of the Crofton Civic Association, I have met with Maryland highway officials many times. I have challenged their assumptions and proposed traffic counts and justifications for the estimated $1.8 billion to $3 billion bypass. The government response: trust us. The bypass will relieve Capital Beltway gridlock and address increasing traffic demands in communities along the route, they say.
Yet, the report itself reveals the true reason for the bypass: to route trucks away from the Capital Beltway. The highway officials thus intend to relieve commuter congestion on the Capital Beltway by creating congestion and pollution in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. It defies logic.
The report mentions that an interstate bypass would divert truck traffic from the Wilson and American Legion bridges -- 8,000 to 12,000 tractor-trailer trips per day by the year 2010. In fact, the report advocates an eastern route because it would divert the most trucks off the Capital Beltway.
Highway engineers always promise that the next new highway will relieve traffic congestion on existing roads. I recall promises about the Capital Beltway and I-95. But even this latest report admits that the construction of a bypass would relieve congestion for only five years. Beltway traffic then would swell again, creating yet another demand for larger and bigger roads. This massive road project will only serve as a temporary but irreversible solution to the region's traffic problems.
Why are government highway officials oblivious to concerns that a super-bypass is environmentally dangerous? Given the number of tractor-trailer accidents on the Beltway, Route 50 and I-270 and the numbers of trucks that carry dangerous cargo, why won't the bypass report tell us about increased risks from vehicles carrying hazardous materials overturning or releasing toxic chemicals in communities adjacent to the bypass?
In Anne Arundel County we have asked state highway officials to work with the citizens to devise less drastic highway or transportation options to meet local commuter traffic and business and development needs. We need improved existing roads to accommodate increasing automobile use in an area of rapid population growth. A truck bypass will only make roads such as Maryland Route 3 and an upgraded Route 50 more unsafe.
But at every instance, highway officials recite the benefits of the federally funded eastern bypass. Over and over, highway officials have said the eastern bypass would not mainly be a truck bypass. They tell us that it would not contribute to unchecked growth and development, that it would not place an increased burden on local government to supply services at a time of rising property taxes, that it would not rip out the heart of this beautiful region or add to our problems of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
Neil J. Pedersen, planning director for the Maryland Highway Administration, when talking about the report indicated "there weren't any 'fatal flaws' that would prevent any of the highway alignments from being built." The highway planners have apparently chosen to ignore the warnings of University of Maryland soils scientists and others. It doesn't matter that construction of an eastern bypass will expose sulfur-laden soils and bleed deadly acid into the streams and rivers of the Chesapeake Bay. Yet this is the same waterway Maryland and Virginia are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to restore.
A March 1990 study conducted by the Anne Arundel County Eastern Bypass Task Force rings an environmental alarm on unchecked highway construction. The report found that hundreds of wetlands and numerous streams have been damaged by sediment and thermal pollution as a result of federally funded highway construction activities.
The draft environmental impact study confirms this. All of the proposed eastern routes would displace houses, businesses and farms and traverse streams and wetlands, including the Zekiah Swamp in Prince George's County, the largest swamp in Maryland. Still, highway officials say they "are confident that any ill effects of the bypass can be mitigated."
Repeatedly the actions of highway officials have not matched their words. Repeatedly they have asked the citizens to have faith and trust that as public servants they will do the best for the citizens of the region. I strongly doubt these highway officials really have the best interests of the citizens in mind in this case. Still they say, trust us. Under the circumstances how can we?
-- Robert P. Duckworth