Maryland bike advocates and lawmakers want to save the Potomac River Bridge

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While inquiring about creating a trail through the lower Potomac River, U.S. senators from Maryland and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D) this summer asked transportation officials of the state to delay demolition of an 80 year old bridge.

The Maryland Transportation Authority is completing construction of an adjacent four-lane bridge, designed to ease congestion and meet modern safety standards. The state’s response to lawmakers, outlined in a single-spaced, three-page letter, was unequivocal. Maryland Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. wrote that keeping the existing bridge was “not an option.”

The word “no” has been underlined. In an addendum, Ports wrote in blue pen, “Hope you’re all having a great summer.”

Ports’ letter and the revelation at a recent meeting of the Maryland Transportation Authority’s board of directors that demolition was underway appear to be the final blow to a long-standing quest by pedestrian and cyclist advocates. They had spent months working to preserve the old Nice-Middleton Bridge as part of a connection in a future trail network. A teardown that pitted federal lawmakers against state transportation leaders now has supporters exploring one last ploy, while citing environmental concerns: challenging a state plan that would involve blowing up the bridge with underwater explosives.

As he prepares to leave office, many of Gov. Larry Hogan’s (right) signature transportation initiatives are far from complete. The Federal Highway Administration missed a target date this month to provide final environmental approval for widening portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. The Purple Line light rail project in suburban Washington is mired in delays. And it will be up to the next governor to determine whether to build a new Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

By comparison, the $463 million Nice-Middleton Bridge replacement is a smaller project, but one that is expected to near completion in the coming months, creating a smoother connection for drivers between fast-growing Charles County and King George County, Virginia.

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At the July 28 transportation board meeting, Eric Brenner, a former chairman of a state bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee and an advocate for the preservation of the old bridge, expressed unwillingness to reconsider the demolition as a push by state officials to ensure their preferred plan is executed before the arrival of the governor’s successor in January. Brenner testified as an audience member.

Both candidates to replace Hogan said they support exploring options to keep the current bridge.

Democratic candidate Wes Moore said he had “serious concerns” about the demolition plan. He urged the state to hold the dismantling of the bridge until a study can be conducted.

“With potentially millions of federal dollars on the table to support its transformation into a community asset, it is in the interest of ratepayers to seriously consider the proposal before proceeding with a costly multi-million dollar demolition,” a- he said in a statement.

Of the. Dan Cox, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, said in a text message that since the new bridge likely won’t accommodate closed bike lanes, he wants to keep the old bridge as a bike lane “and will work toward it.” . purpose as governor.

Leaders of the transport authority, which runs the state’s toll roads, say the demolition is just a practical matter: no one has stepped in to bear the cost of maintaining the old bridge, and leaving it standing could create engineering problems for the new span. Debris from the demolition will be used to create a fish reef in the Chesapeake Bay, which they say will have significant environmental benefits.

In a statement, Hoyer, whose neighborhood includes the bridge, said he was disappointed with the authority’s refusal to reconsider its plans and study a pedestrian-friendly crossing.

“As we continue our fight against climate change, it is essential that we consider all forms of transport alternatives that take us away from carbon emissions while supporting mobility around our local communities,” he said. declared. “While I believe this is a missed opportunity, I will continue to advocate for infrastructure solutions that benefit our environment and our community.”

When Hogan put forward a plan to replace the bridge in 2016, his office said in a statement that the new crossing would include a separate path for bicycles and pedestrians. But the transportation authority scrapped that idea as a cost-saving measure in 2019, freeing up money to invest in a stretch of Interstate 95.

Appalled by this decision, a group of defenders began to explore the possibility of keeping the current bridge as an alternative. It was old, but they felt it could be strong enough to be used by people walking or biking, although it is no longer suitable for heavy trucks.

Their hopes were briefly buoyed when the US Department of Transportation delayed approval of a key loan for the project while questioning the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. The loan was ultimately approved without changes to the design of the bridge.

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It is then that the senses. Chris Van Hollen (D), Ben Cardin (D) and Hoyer wrote to Ports.

“An independent study, conducted by an entity with experience in similar bridge repurposing projects, is in the interest of the ratepayer to ensure that we do not miss an opportunity to provide transport options for bicycles. and pedestrians at a cost competitive or potentially lower than demolition,” they wrote in the July 14 letter.

Ports responded the following week to reject the idea. At the July 28 board meeting, William Pines, the authority’s executive director, reviewed a long list of issues that would need to be addressed if the old bridge remained standing. They ranged from “managing straying” to how water flow be affected.

“A few things that are notably missing from the delegation letter from Congress were appropriations of funds to actually conduct this additional study, any interested entity that made a commitment to take ownership of the bridge, and there was no commitment to appropriate financial assistance or funds to support the maintenance of the existing bridge,” Pines said at the meeting.

Pines said contractors have begun demolition work to keep the project on schedule, even though the new bridge is months away from opening to traffic. John Sales, a spokesman for the authority, said the existing bridge remains safe. The contractor in charge of the bridge project has referred questions to the transportation authority.

The new bridge, about 40 miles south of downtown Washington, will include some provisions for cyclists, including special seals suitable for bicycle tires and a warning system that will alert drivers when a cyclist is crossing. State officials also say there are few connecting trails in the area around the bridge.

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Activists calling for a car-free passage say they are considering a 50-mile trail system in Maryland and Virginia that would connect the Potomac Heritage Trail and potentially the conversion of a rail line that could be abandoned as that power plants would switch to coal. A proposed 200-mile loop would use the bridge and ferries to cross the region’s waterways.

Defenders’ last option, they said, could be challenge the state’s plans to use explosives to complete the demolition, a procedure they say was not contemplated by the initial environmental review. Brenner said defenders are considering last-ditch efforts that could halt plans already in motion.

“The requirement for a new EA seems really clear,” Brenner said at the board meeting, “and you sort of hate to threaten that.”

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