When the Arc and the Dove landed on the shores of the lower Potomac in 1634, Southern Maryland was as pristine as it had ever been. Beautiful estuaries, diverse flora and fauna,
and verdant landscapes have always highlighted the area, and they no doubt helped contribute to the success of the first European colony in Maryland.
Most recently, parts of Charles, Calvert, and Saint Mary's County have come to look more like the off-the-highway towns I came to know in the remote parts of the Midwest back in my Army days. Car culture, big boxes, and inefficient land use has taken its toll in places like Waldorf and Dunkirk, and the effects are spreading. Vital wetlands in the Potomac and Patuxent watersheds are bearing the brunt of the ecological damage.
And now a new highway is moving forward.
The Charles County Connector. Consider it the baby brother of the ICC. And thanks to the big brother, you're not likely to hear anything about it. I myself have had a difficult time finding up-to-date information on this highway, but I managed to dig up an old National Environmental Policy Act report (warning: PDF).
I first heard of this freeway through a colleague of mine who is a member of the Maryland Ornithological Society. The group is of course concerned about the outright destruction the vital wetlands of the Mattawoman Creek as well as increasing impervious surfaces that will feed polluted water into the wetlands, home to scores of species of Maryland birds. These concerns are shared directly by the Mattawoman Watershed Society, who is urging people to write the governor in opposition of the plan. In all, the four-mile, $60m highway would require the destruction of 74 acres of forest and 7.5 acres of wetland. Much of the surrounding area is slated for development upon completion of the new road.
Tim Wheeler at the Baltimore Sun's Bay and Environment blog points out that this deleterious construction would be carried out under the guise of the Maryland Smart Growth initiatives. This to me is incredibly bizarre and most frustrating. Obviously, keeping development in the northern portion of Charles County makes sense for a number of reasons. It is closer to DC, there are larger towns (Waldorf, LaPlata) that are already somewhat developed, and there are ample road and utility connections already present. But smart growth by definition would dictate that development would take place in and around those towns, not in brand new developments around them. Smart growth implies LESS use of the automobile, quite contrary to the notion of constructing a highway.
Granted I have only skimmed the NEPA report, but nowhere have I seen any plans for sidewalks, trails, or transit along the highway. Of course, If they are there, they may get canceled for "environmental impact" reasons like the ironic fate of the ICC bike trail.
For those that argue that they need the highway to alleviate traffic in the area, consider the following analogy: building highways to alleviate traffic is like scratching poison Ivy to get rid of the irritation. It will be better for a short while, but ultimately you are only spreading the problem. Perhaps before Charles County partitions and destroys its most valuable resource, denser construction and transit around Waldorf ought to be considered. That's real smart growth. And if they do, perhaps Southern Maryland will keep a bit more of its idyllic charm from getting eaten up by cul-de-sacs and parking lots. And perhaps my friend from work will be able to spot a common snipe on the Mattawoman for years to come.