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Charles County officials received assurances Tuesday evening that a new Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge tops the state’s list of needed improvements to its eight tolling facilities, but it remains unclear when funding for the project will become available.

During an annual meeting with state transportation officials, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s director of capital planning called bridge the “authority’s No. 1 priority” after being pressed by state Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles), who said afterward it was the first time he had heard the project so described.

In recent years, state officials have said it was a priority to replace or expand the two-lane bridge, but local residents have grown restless as toll revenue from the bridge went to fund projects elsewhere in the state.

The frustration peaked in summer 2011 when the authority proposed to increase tolls statewide to fund systemwide maintenance and pay off debt from the Intercounty Connector, which links Gaithersburg and Laurel, and express toll lanes along Interstate-95 in northeast Baltimore.

“Our citizens are very angry, and they’re very smart to know that the money they’re paying, not a dime of it is going to go to the Harry Nice, other than just maintaining the bridge, and that most of this money is going to bonds for the ICC and I-95 improvements,” Middleton said at the meeting. “At some point in time, we’re going to finish up the debt obligation on the ICC. Assuming that there is some new money, where does the Harry Nice Bridge project fall in terms of the list of priorities below I-95 and the ICC?”

“It is the transportation authority’s No. 1 priority,” said Dennis N. Simpson, director of the authority’s capital planning division.

“So we can expect then that if money comes available, even if there’s a possibility that there could be some refinancing of the bonds that have floated for the ICC and the I-95 improvements, that that money would then go to the Harry Nice Bridge? Can we get you on record as saying that?” Middleton asked. “I’m talking about new capital projects. Is it the transportation authority’s No. 1 project?”

“Yes,” Simpson confirmed.

Middleton said repeated assurances from the state that the bridge was a priority reminded him of the years of unkept promises that preceded the eventual construction of the Route 5 bypass in Hughesville.

Simpson later clarified that the new Nice Bridge, along with all of the authority’s capital projects, still ranks behind its top two funding priorities — preservation of its eight tolling facilities and paying down debt on the ICC and I-95 toll lanes.

In a follow-up interview, the senator said the meeting provided “probably the first real significant sign that we’re going to start moving forward on this bridge.”

“I was very pleased with their response. I was kind of surprised. I didn’t intend to put them on the spot like that. I just figured it was a good chance to get them on the record,” Middleton said. “I just wanted to know how big a priority it was. When someone says it’s a priority, what does that mean? There could be a dozen projects that are a priority. But I was very pleased with the response.”

The department meets each fall with local officials from across the state to present its six-year capital program and discuss local transportation priorities.

Simpson said the authority is advertising a nearly $14 million contract to clean, paint and make select repairs to the bridge, and that an environmental impacts study on a replacement span should be completed by year’s end.

The next phase, which is expected to cost nearly $90 million, is to design the new bridge, he said.

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) asked whether the state had considered redesignating U.S. 301 as an interstate highway to attract more federal funding for the project. He pointed out that Route 17 in New York is being upgraded to meet interstate highway standards and become part of Interstate 86.

Gregory Slater, director of planning and preliminary engineering for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said the department annually considers whether any highways, including U.S. 301, should be brought up to interstate standards.

“Frankly, when we talk about upgrading any one of our roadways in the state to another interstate, 301’s really the only conversation we ever have,” Slater said. “It wasn’t quite there yet from a use standpoint.”

Diane Ratcliff, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration, thanked the county’s commuters for their “patience” as Dillon’s Bus Service works to improve its service after spending the first half of 2012 mired in its then-parent company’s bankruptcy.

In recent months, Charles County commuters have begun to air complaints publicly regarding late and crowded buses along the four routes operated by Dillon’s.

Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) questioned the state’s past method for accepting bids on commuter bus contracts, specifically lumping several routes into the same contract, which she said deters competition.

“It is very important to us that we feel that there is a bid process that does not deter anyone from being able to participate, and also I think it’s not always good to put your eggs in one basket,” Jameson said.

jnewman@somdnews.com