Community voice: Bikers will contribute to county
Over the past few years, the county has been working on several planning efforts aimed at improving the economic development and quality of life for citizens and businesses in the county, all while improving the environment we live in. Transit-oriented design studies and plans, and the Cecil County Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan were both prepared and accepted by local jurisdictions and County Council respectively.
As a citizen of the county, I participated in both of these efforts along with many other citizens and public officials. The clear trend in the United States of improving the safety and access for citizens to community events, natural resources and local businesses (as well as visiting historic and interesting local attractions) is through off-road facilities, or trails, and safer local roads and streets, and the Complete Streets movement that includes all user groups in designing roads and public rights-of-way. This brings us to the reason why the Hatem Bridge connection across the Susquehanna River is such a key strategic decision. Facts (not fiction) The upcoming opening of the bridge to bicycle traffic is designed to minimize impacts to motorized users, while curing a major obstacle to both Cecil and Harford County citizens — not to mention state and national travelers. As currently planned, the bridge will be open to cyclists over the age of 16 years (unless accompanied by an adult) from the hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. On weekends, it will be opened from dawn to dusk. During unusual periods of extra heavy traffic (like when the Interstate 95 bridge is closed or heavy holiday traffic is present) the bridge can be temporarily restricted to motorized vehicles. Periods when a lane is closed for maintenance and weather restrictions will follow similar restrictions. I regularly cross the bridge during lower volume periods and even when a lane is closed, find the traffic proceeds at posted speeds. The short-term passing of a cyclist in the right lane across the bridge will have almost no impact to motorized users. There are many additional techniques utilized by transportation professionals (MDOT, SHA and MDTA) across the state to further facilitate safe transportation of motorized and non-motorized travelers.
Why is this so important to Cecil County?
As mentioned above, crossing the Susquehanna River has been a huge gap in the development of tourism, economic development and quality of living in our county. As bicycle and pedestrian access to the new Amtrak bridge is estimated to be a huge expense and less than desirable for non-motorized users, the Hatem Bridge was looked at as a way to close this gap. While not the ideal solution (it doesn’t provide access for pedestrians), the decision has a largely positive impact for next to no investment. But why does allowing access to more users mean so much to us in Cecil County?
People decide where to live for many reasons, but some of the core reasons are the quality of the community, employment proximity, and cost. Employers seek places to start their businesses in places that offer employees what they desire. If you manage, work in or own a business in Cecil County, you will see more qualified employees interested in moving into the area to live. You will also see improved traffic in your store without the need for adding parking lots or spaces. Cyclists actually do spend more money in places they visit than motorized visitors, litter less and travel mostly during low traffic periods. Cyclists visit historic sites, scenic landscapes and natural resource attractions (think the Chesapeake Bay, Chesapeake City and Canal Trail, Fair Hill NRMA, Elk Neck State Park and Forest, and the numerous scenic roads in the rural sections of the county). Our group rides on Saturday and Sunday mornings regularly include a visit to Kilby’s in Rising Sun or Ice Cream Alley in North East. Imagine what impact the additional riders will have on the businesses that have what they need throughout the county.
The East Coast Greenway will also be signed through Cecil County this summer (from Elkton to Perryville). The Mason-Dixon hiking trail is almost completely blazed from the Delaware Line to Perryville. The offroad connection from North East to Elkton through the Elk Neck State Forest will be complete and open to families, kids and adult beginner cyclists and all hikers and trail runners late this spring or this summer. Fair Hill has over 80 miles of off-road trails open to cyclists, equestrians and pedestrians. Elk Neck State Forest and Park com- bined have another 20 miles of trails as well as preservation areas, camping, boating and scenic features such as the Light House, White Banks and Pete Bond scenic overlooks. Opening a limited crossing of the Susquehanna River via the Hatem Bridge allows all of these current county initiatives to continue to move forward. Incorrect statements Several incorrect statements have appeared in the press lately related to the Hatem Bridge opening to cyclists:
The WILMAPCO Nonmotorized Working Group, which covers Cecil County and New Castle County, Del., has several Cecil County members and serves as the main communication channel to County Government on bicycle and pedestrian planning efforts. As a citizen member of this group who attended all of the meetings it’s been clear that a crossing of the Susquehanna River was a main priority for the group.
As the governor appointed representative (both under Govs. O’Malley and Hogan) to the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee representing Cecil County and the Eastern Shore, I attended the review and walkthrough of the Ha- tem Bridge and county officials were also invited to attend. Many potential safety issues were discussed in that meeting and all are addressed in the current plan. Summary If you’re already a citizen of our county, you live in a special place. While I completely understand the impulse to want to avoid anything that changes how we live, I also believe in moving forward with creating good jobs, encouraging business growth (and new business and industry development), improving our communities by allowing safer access by muscle-powered transportation along with the many existing features — and doing this all in a way that enhances the natural beauty of the county instead of exploiting it. There are thousands of local cyclists in addition to the thousands more of tourists on foot or bicycle who will visit our county now that the bridge crossing is available. All we have to do is welcome these visitors (and area citizens) to our trails, scenic roadways and special attractions to gain the benefits so many other communities across the state enjoy.
Robert Gaston is a citizen member of the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.