McCarthy Pushes New I-95 Exit to Aid Biz Development, Reinstates Rail Priorities; Puts Moore Bus ‘Hub’ in Back Seat
Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy wants a new Interstate 95 interchange to serve new businesses coming to the Principio business park and has reinstated commuter rail expansion in Cecil County as top priorities, in contrast to a puzzling push last year by former county executive Tari Moore to make a bus garage and pie-in-the-sky rail station in North East her top priority for state transportation aid to the county.
McCarthy outlined his transportation priorities in a letter to State Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn that was submitted to the County Council on Tuesday (3/21/2017), as part of an annual process to set county priorities. Members of the Council generally welcomed McCarthy’s new priorities.
A new interchange on Interstate 95, at Belvedere Road, would serve the Principio Business Park, where several major new warehousing operations are under construction, including an Amazon “fulfillment center” expected to create 700 jobs and a “distribution center” for Lidl, a German grocery operation that is entering US markets for the first time.
Now, I-95 traffic to Principio would access the site from exits in Perryville or North East, then travel along Route 40. A more direct interchange route would speed up access to the warehouses while also reducing truck traffic and related road damage on Route 40.
“It will be a heavy lift,” County Director of Administration Al Wein conceded. He told the County Council there have already been positive discussions with state transportation officials, but “a lot of the decisions will be made at the federal highway level.” I-95 is a federal interstate highway and the main north-south travel corridor from New England to Florida.
McCarthy made his arguments to Annapolis on the basis of Cecil County’s unfortunate but unique status as the only county in the state in which motorists have to pay tolls to enter or leave, via Hatem Bridge or Susquehanna Bridge tolls.
Only Cecil County‘s “accessibility and economic viability is impeded by a toll,” he said. He said tolls collected on I-95 in Cecil County actually support transportation projects in more urban areas of the state, such as the Inter-County Connector (ICC) in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. (However, the state argues that I-95 tolls go to pay off bonds that paid for improvements to that road, and as a result revenues cannot be diverted to other road projects.)
As part of his agenda, McCarthy reiterated long-standing calls for eventually moving I-95 tollbooths in Cecil County closer to the Delaware state line, so local travelers could avoid them, and as an interim step lowering current tolls on the Hatem Bridge in Perryville. (While Cecil residents can obtain a special $20 a year EZ pass for unlimited trips over the Hatem Bridge, Gov. Hogan did not lower the Hatem’s $8 per car toll for occasional visitors and tourists—unlike the per-trip toll cut to $4 per car on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge instituted by Hogan.) So tourists pay twice as much in tolls to visit Cecil County as they do to cross the heavily traveled Bay Bridge to the mid-Eastern Shore.
McCarthy also renewed and elevated the county’s longstanding request for extending the MARC commuter rail service from Perryville to Elkton, and also sought connections with the newly planned rail ‘hub’ in Delaware that is being built with a massive infusion of federal aid. His proposal also calls for linking commuter rail from Elkton to the SEPTA regional rail line in Philadelphia.
The new county executive’s proposal gave just 13 words of generic support, in a three-page highly detailed letter, to a proposed “multi-modal transportation hub” in North East. That bus, and eventually rail, proposal was suddenly lifted from obscurity last year by then County Executive Tari Moore, who made it the county’s Number One transportation priority. The plan has been pushed by the town of North East’s Mayor-for-Life Robert McKnight and David Trolio, the county’s director of Community Services, formerly known as Senior Services and Transit.
Moore’s proposal puzzled County Council members at the time, since they were not told of the concept in advance and it undercuts the county’s long-held wishes for a commuter rail extension to Elkton, where there are already rail tracks and an old station from past rail services that were abandoned years ago. Moore’s proposal also came at a time when the Sheriff’s Department reported record traffic fatalities on county roads that should have drawn attention for safety improvements at intersections.
[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/09/traffic-deaths-rise-in-cecil-county-as-transportation-plan-pushes-different-priorities/ ]
McCarthy’s new plan elevates safety improvements at key intersections, such as Route 213 and Route 40, that had been top priorities in the past but were downgraded by Moore in favor of the North East “hub” proposal.
Trolio’s department has received a state planning grant for the North East “hub” and he told CECIL TIMES on Tuesday that the downgrading of his plan to the bottom of the new priority list under the McCarthy plan would not affect that, or other grants, he hopes to receive for his plan. “The state loves this stuff,” he said, adding that the first phase of a multi-phase planning process has been completed and he expects to brief the executive and Council on the plan soon.
Meanwhile, County officials thought the prospects for extension of the MARC commuter rail service to Elkton had improved immensely when MARC officials came courting the local government two years ago with a plan to build a new railcar storage and maintenance facility in the Perryville area, saying that facility was a pre-requisite to any extension of MARC service in the county.
But in a meeting with local officials on 9/30/16, Secretary Rahn delivered the bad news that negotiations on a preferred site were at a stalemate since the landowner wanted about $11 million for the property but a state appraisal valued it at less than $6 million. In addition, state gasoline tax revenues are down by about $746 million due to lower gas prices, with the result, Rahn said, that an earlier projection of a 2018 railyard opening would be delayed by at least four years.
[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/10/on-the-bus-not-the-rails-for-cecil-county-commuters-state-stalls-marc-plans-again/ ]
So that would put 2022 as the timeline for the railyard, and an unknown date thereafter for possible extension of refurbished MARC rail lines to Elkton.
Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has become an enthusiastic advocate of a Korean technology initiative to create a high-speed “mag-lev” (magnetic levitation) rail link between Baltimore and Washington, DC and the state has received a federal grant for very early planning of such an initiative. Baltimore and Washington are already served by MARC commuter rail, the AMTRAK passenger rail system, and the high-speed Acela train system.
Hogan has visited Cecil County once since his election, and brought no special projects or grants to the county, unlike his frequent grant-laden visits to western and southern Maryland where he won overwhelming support in the 2014 election. Cecil County voters also gave Hogan a huge majority but the county has not received comparable aid or support.