- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. — With no time to waste and much waste to ponder, seven teams of architects, engineers and college students are racing to design an environmentally friendly rest stop along Interstate 270.

The federally funded contest is aimed at producing a Maryland Welcome Center that will demonstrate self-sustaining technologies while serving the toilet and travel needs of 1,300 people daily — including many visitors to the nation’s capital, 35 miles away.

“We think this is a potential model for the state and the country, perhaps, and a lot of people will be seeing it and, hopefully, be inspired to imitate it,” said John Darnell, an aide to Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, the project’s congressional sponsor.

The haste is a function of funding. Mr. Bartlett has secured $363,000 for the design phase and hopes to get at least $750,000 more for construction, which must begin by Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year, or the money may be lost.

Construction costs for a conventional welcome center total $940,000, according to the State Highway Administration. While the actual cost of the proposed “green” rest stop isn’t yet known, Mr. Darnell said it will use technologies with higher upfront costs and lower operating costs than conventional utilities.

All designs must include self-contained electrical, water and waste-treatment systems for the 1,200-square-foot structure, Mr. Darnell told contestants last week at a meeting.

“The goal here is to have almost zero impact on the environment,” Mr. Darnell said. “The water supply would come from rainfall — we won’t deplete the groundwater, we won’t discharge anything into the groundwater. All the energy, electricity and so on, would come from the sun and wind.”

He acknowledged the project must overcome regulatory hurdles — rainwater can’t currently be used for public drinking water, for example — as well as likely aesthetic objections and public inhibitions about composting of human waste.

Waste treatment is probably the biggest challenge, said Stanley J. Sersen, founder of the Environmental Design & Resource Center in Glen Burnie, Md. The company is working on an entry with the Baltimore-based Design Collective and two students from the University of Maryland at College Park.

Mr. Sersen said natural wastewater-treatment systems capable of handling 4,000 flushes a day exist in California and the Southwest, but they include greenhouses and aquatic vegetation, which require a lot of space.

“Ideally, if you’re going to do it the natural way, you not only need space, you’re going to need the right conditions, which may mean heat and pumps, which all takes electricity,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of investigation and research that needs to be done up front.”

The project has few precedents. A partially solar-powered rest stop has operated since 1982 near Lincoln, Neb., on Interstate 80, but a completely self-sufficient one probably would be a first, said Charles B. Adams, director of environmental designs for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “I’m not aware of any comparable facility in the country,” he said.

Mr. Bartlett, a millionaire farmer, physiologist and inventor who has built 50 passive-solar homes in Frederick County, said he sponsored the competition “to enlist the creative talents of our next generation of architects and engineers.”

The teams, all from Maryland and the District of Columbia, each include at least two students, two faculty members, a professional architect and a professional engineer. A panel of about 50 experts will judge the entries based on technical and financial criteria, and award the top four qualifying teams up to $25,000 each, Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Darnell said a number of workshops, including one with manufacturers of suitable technologies, will be held before submissions are due in mid-May.

The selection process will likely generate positive publicity for Mr. Bartlett, who is running for re-election next year. His opponent in the Republican primary, Frederick County State’s Attorney Scott Rolle, said he found it “totally bizarre” that Mr. Bartlett would support such a project after opposing funding improvements to I-270 and voting in March against the federal budget that partially funded the project.

Mr. Bartlett notes that he is a solar-powered homebuilder, the driver of a hybrid gas-electric car and has “been a longtime advocate and user of new technologies to reduce energy use and protect the environment.”

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