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Transporting ourselves over the brink?
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2008

A proposed outer beltway for the D.C. area could threaten the Mattawoman Creek watershed and produce sprawl in our area. By trying to stop it we can help keep Maryland away from unsustainable sprawl and begin restoring its future.

Important transportation decisions imminent in Charles and Prince George’s Counties could lock Maryland into an unsustainable future. By promoting business as usual—and the attendant sprawl development—these highway decisions could push our state into effectively hosting the Eastern Washington Bypass, part of the “Outer Beltway.” The Outer Beltway seemed to be buried in the early 1990’s under its own financial and environmental costs but is making a stealthy comeback via piecemealed segments and growth-promoting policies.

     Fig. 1 (page 4) shows a detail of a map from the 1990 Washington Bypass Study, on which are superimposed the Intercounty Connector (ICC)*, the Western Waldorf Bypass (WWB), and Charles County’s Cross County Connector extension (CCC-ex). While the CCC-ex is ostensibly not part of the Outer Beltway, it would promote massive growth in western Charles County, a necessary stepping stone for those who want to justify another Potomac River bridge at Chicamuxen, near the mouth of Mattawoman Creek.

     Among the casualties of the WWB and CCC-ex would be the Chesapeake Bay jewels of Mattawoman (www.mattawomanwatershed.org),the most productive fish nursery in the Bay; and Nanjemoy, an area renowned for its forests, Potomac shoreline, heron rookery, and a federally endangered freshwater mussel. The Port Tobacco River, presently the focus of significant restoration efforts (http://porttobaccoriver.org), would backslide. The growth induced by these highways, if built, would make a mockery of Chesapeake Bay restoration and preservation efforts.

Because segmenting highways dilutes public outcry, it is important that Sierrans spread the word statewide and stand up to counter the big money that lubricates these untenable sprawl-inducing highway proposals.

Cross County Connector Extension 

Since the proposed CCC-ex would be fully funded by Charles County, its advocates hope to fly under the radar and avoid the full study of a properly scoped Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Ordinarily, an EIS would seem an automatic requirement for a new 6.5 mile, four-lane divided highway that would cut across the watershed of one the Bay’s most important tributaries. The CCC-ex would destroy over seven acres of wetlands (nearly 20% Maryland’s annual loss) and promote massive growth. Yet the Army Corps of Engineers is presently considering issuing a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI.

In these times, when the consequences of sprawl on aquatic resources are well documented, it is remarkable that a permit would be considered without knowing the facts that an EIS could provide. A fully scoped EIS will give serious attention to alternatives. In the case of the CCC-ex, the same cross-county traffic could be accommodated by recently dualized Middletown Road and the dualized Route 228, which parallels the CCC-ex proposal and which the CCC-ex mimics.

A critical public hearing on the CCC-ex is anticipated this summer. The hearing will be convened by the Army Corps and Maryland Department of Environment. Note that the state shares jurisdiction over wetlands with the Army Corps. It is crucial that an overwhelming number of people attend the hearing, comment orally, and provide written comments. After the hearing, the Corps will decide whether to require an EIS, or instead issue a FONSI, in which case they and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) would be free to issue the wetland destruction permit. A large turnout at the hearing, all asking for an EIS, is evidence of public controversy, which can be helpful in requiring an EIS, according to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Please see sidebar on page 4 for what you can do.

Western Waldorf Bypass

The WWB is a second major highway proposal with devastating consequences. As Fig. 1 shows, it traces part of the path of the 1990 proposal for an Eastern Washington Bypass. However, its stated purpose is to relieve traffic congestion produced by poor planning along Route 301 in Waldorf. It is one of three main alternatives being considered. The others are an Eastern Waldorf Bypass and an upgrade of 301 through Waldorf, the environmentally least damaging solution. Because this highway project would use federal funding, a draft EIS is automatically required, and one is presently in preparation thanks to $5 million in state funds. Now is the time to comment, as the State Highway Administration just held public workshops inviting comment. The sidebar on page 4 gives suggestions.

Opposition to Waldorf Bypasses 

The severely damaging Waldorf bypass alternatives  were dismissed in the past by two Citizens Advisory Committees, one appointed in Charles County and one in Prince George’s County. The committees favored an upgrade. Both bypasses are opposed, in favor of a 301 upgrade, by Prince George’s County government. Only the Charles County government wants a Western Waldorf Bypass, but they hold considerable power. Their stubbornness has for years prevented federal funds from helping to alleviate traffic by upgrading 301.

From a political perspective, the Eastern Waldorf Bypass is an unlikely option because it is opposed by both counties. The WWB, proposed to cross Mattawoman and slice through miles of its forest, would be environmentally devastating in its own right. But as with the ICC, the impact on streams, floodplains, wetlands, and forest would be magnified many fold by the growth induced  in a deeply forested rural area. In fact, in 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency found that the Western Waldorf Bypass was too damaging to Mattawoman Creek to be considered. The WWB would also harm Piscataway Creek and the Port Tobacco River, including valued Page’s Swamp.

From an environmental standpoint, an upgrade to 301 through Waldorf is the only choice. An option that least disturbs businesses is desirable. There is concern that upgrade options being considered impact businesses unnecessarily. Citizen comments can support a requirement that the State Highway Administration take all necessary steps to upgrade 301 properly.

The full upgrade option of U.S. 301 would also provide an opportunity to launch a better vision for the future. It should be integrally designed to interact with a light rail line between Waldorf and the Branch Ave. Metro station, and to promote transit-oriented development around rail stations.

“Same old” or a better vision? 

Through the Chesapeake Bay Agreement and programs like the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, Maryland and the federal government expend millions to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Working at cross-purposes are the regulatory arms that seldom exercise permitting tools, such as wetland and water quality permits, to curtail the most degrading of local-land use policies. Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts are doomed if Maryland continues to pursue and to issue permits for new highways for which more enlightened alternatives exist. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Inspector General, population in the Bay watershed grew by about 5% in the 1990’s, while impervious cover grew by 41%. Such a large mismatch defines sprawl, which in large part is subsidized by highways.

Sprawl development, which is highway dependent and characterized by long commutes and oversize houses, is a highly disproportionate contributor to carbon dioxide, a primary global-warming gas.  So reining in unneeded highways would bring additional benefits by reducing our carbon footprint. However, without leadership at the highest levels, business as usual will continue. There will be no economic incentive for a more sustainable future—forest, after all, is the cheapest land for manufacturing subdivisions. Never mind that it is also the best land-use to preserve aquatic quality.

For now,  the watershed of Mattawoman Creek remains mostly forested. But it is rapidly being converted to impervious cover, approaching the 10% threshold known to cause significant loss in water quality. This  would bring the creek, unequaled in the Bay system for its fish productivity, to the brink of severe degradation. A decision  to sacrifice Mattawoman by permitting these proposed highways raises serious questions about any meaningful commitment to save the Bay.   Mattawoman’s loss would be a telling indictment and reveal restoration efforts to be little more than rhetoric.

With highway proposals concentrated in a still-rural area that supports important aquatic resources, and with Waldorf approaching a density that could support transit-oriented development, the state has an opportunity to compel a new vision for the future of Maryland, one based on preserving our natural resources while adopting a sustainable economic development plan. Because highly valued Mattawoman stands in the crosshairs of a piecemealed Eastern Washington Bypass, a decision to sacrifice it represents a pivot that could swing much of Maryland into unsustainable sprawl, with enormous costs born by our children and grandchildren.     

*Abbreviations. CCC-ex, Cross County Connector extension; EIS: Environmental Impact Statement; FONSI: Finding of no significant impact; ICC: Intercounty connector; MDE: Maryland Dept. of the Environment; NEPA: National Environmental Policy Act; SHA: State Highway Admin.; WWB: Western Waldorf Bypass.

 

This article was submitted by the Mattawoman Watershed Society.

Fig. 1

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