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The study to enlarge the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge over the Patuxent River is just about finished. Now comes the hard part finding the $750 million or more to build it.

The Maryland State Highway Administration briefed the St. Mary’s County commissioners on June 28 on the planning status and asked for the board’s preferences on options to expand the bridge and to fix the intersection at Route 235 and Route 4.

The state funded $5.5 million for the project’s planning, said Jeremy Beck, project manager, but noted “this project is not currently funded beyond project planning.” There are still the final design, right-of-way acquisition and construction phases to go.

The state’s estimate is still $750 million for the entire project.

Options include building a new second span parallel to the existing bridge. The existing span would carry two lanes of traffic southbound and a new span would carry two lanes northbound with an additional 10-foot lane for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Another option would be to construct an entirely new bridge with four lanes for vehicles, with a lane for pedestrians and cyclists, and then tear down the existing bridge. An entirely new span would be 7,310 feet long, Beck said.

The St. Mary’s commissioners had no unified opinion last week, but in interviews June 29, three of them agreed any new span should be tall enough to allow large ships access underneath in the future.

The current span at its highest point is 140 feet above the river’s channel, which is 130 feet deep. The Navy wanted the bridge built that high in 1969 during design to allow its ships to anchor at the base’s Solomons annex. Ships aren’t moored there anymore since the Navy pier burned up a few years ago, but the area remains a deep-water port. A commercial port was once proposed at today’s Myrtle Point Park in California, Md.

Beck said federal officials are comfortable with any new bridge at least 70 feet tall. “Lowering the bridge would potentially reduce costs,” he said. “They do not need that height anymore,” he said of the Navy.

“If you’re going to spend a billion dollars-plus, why shortchange yourself?,” said St. Mary’s Commission President Jack Russell (D) on June 29. “I think we ought to put a bridge back that will replicate the one we have now.”

“We probably need to keep the height as it is for the Solomons annex,” said St. Mary’s Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) on June 29. “It would be a logical place in the future with federal support for cruise ships running out of Solomons,” he said. He said he didn’t have much of a preference between adding a second span or building an entirely new one. “Regardless of which way you do it keep the height,” he said.

St. Mary’s Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said June 29, “70 [feet], I don’t think works. We have that deep-water channel there. You don’t want to ruin opportunity economically on either side of the bridge.”

On the Calvert end, Calvert County Commissioners’ President Susan Shaw (R) said she believes the best approach is to marry what the public has said it wants to see and SHA’s studies, since Sen. Roy Dyson (D-Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s) has said the current span is unsafe because of the additional traffic it bears. State highway officials have said it is safe, however.

“Before I would ever make a recommendation I would need to hear from state highway what the longevity of that bridge is,” Shaw said.

The current height is a stunning visual landmark, she said, but the height is no longer required by the U.S. Navy for the ships to go underneath. “So then it comes down to the fact that it is a lot more expensive to build a new bridge at the same height as the old bridge versus the additional justification of its being a stunning visual marker,” she said. “That’s the kind of thinking that should be going on.”

Fellow Calvert Commissioner Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) said he believes the option that has been most embraced in the county is the construction of a new four-lane bridge, with additional space for bikers and pedestrians.

“One thing I didn’t want to see is one bridge parallel beside it so you have one higher and one lower,” Clark said, adding that he doesn’t know if it’s necessary to build the new bridge as high as it is now because boats will still be able to sail underneath it at a lower height.

“It could be much, much lower,” Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt (R) said. “But I also understand there is currently a nice view of Solomons when you’re up there. The lower you go, the lesser the nice view.”

Slaughenhoupt said Solomons residents have expressed concern over the possibility of building a second span. “If they build another span and the existing one remains, it should stay at the same height, otherwise it’ll look ugly,” he said.

The State Highway Administration will produce its preferred bridge alternatives this fall and the location and design approval is scheduled for the spring of 2012, Beck said.

There are three options for the intersection of Route 235 and Route 4, the busiest intersection in St. Mary’s County with between 40,000 and 55,000 vehicles a day using it. One option would allow a constant flow, another would build a ramp from Route 4 to southbound Route 235 and another would build an urban intersection where Route 4 would cross underneath Route 235.

“We want to have traffic ease in St. Mary’s County to maximize our transportation system,” Russell said, though he does not have a preference on what kind of intersection goes in.

He said of the entire project, “It’s going to cost a tremendous amount of money ... which we don’t have now.”

Jarboe said of the intersection designs, “Let’s see what they come up with as the safest.”

Morgan said he had no preference, but said he didn’t want to see “a mixing-bowl design,” like the kinds found in Northern Virginia.

The Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial bridge opened in December 1977 at a cost of $26 million then. It was estimated to cost $10.6 million in 1966 when the project was approved.

jbabcock@somdnews.com