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Southern Maryland has been lobbying for some attention for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge for quite some time now. The announcement made by state transportation officials last week has given a reason to be optimistic that plans to replace the aging bridge will move forward.

Several years ago, officials from Charles County and King George County in Virginia agreed on what they thought the state of Maryland should do to fix the U.S. 301 bridge that crosses the Potomac River in Newburg. The consensus was that the state should build a new four-lane replacement for the two-lane bridge. There have been open houses held since then to get public input. The reality was that it was just another project on a long wishlist from communities across the state that were competing for money for their road and bridge projects. Everyone acknowledged there was no money for it.

What happened last week when Maryland Department of Transportation officials came to town was what Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton called “probably the first real significant sign that we’re going to start moving forward on this bridge.”

The cry has been that something needed to be done about the bridge. The 1.7-mile-long bridge opened in 1940. No one imagined then how much traffic would make its way across the span. Latest statistics say that the average daily traffic in 2011 was a little more than 18,000. Since there are no shoulders on the bridge, if there’s an accident the traffic comes to a standstill. There’s also nowhere for disabled vehicles to pull off the road. There are often backups as four lanes on both sides funnel into two. It is usually worse on weekends, and again worse on weekends in the summertime.

Backups are very inconvenient to say the least. But from the standpoint of homeland security, it is imperative that a new structure be built. It is doubtful that the bridge could handle all of the traffic that would be sent south if Washington, D.C., and the surrounding suburbs were evacuated in the event of a terrorist strike on our nation’s capital. The role that the bridge would play in any regional evacuation plan also should move it to the top of any regional infrastructure improvement plan.

But now, after years of competing with high pricetag projects like the Intercounty Connector which links Laurel and Gaithersburg and improvements to I-95 northeast of Baltimore, the county was told the Nice Bridge now is a state priority. Middleton pushed the state officials for assurances and he got them last Wednesday.

From last week’s announcement it sounds as if the bridge has gotten the green light. If all goes well, an environmental impact study should be completed by the end of the year. Then would come the next phase which is to design the bridge. The project will be expensive about a half a billion dollars and climbing. Local officials must remain persistent and keep pressure on the state and remind them of the commitment that has been made. The Nice Bridge is an inadequate piece of transportation infrastructure and the state can no longer look the other way and find other priorities.

We have been here before only to be told that there is a shortage of money in the state’s transportation fund. Granted there are projects all over the state that need attention, but at some point this Southern Maryland project must make its way to the top of the list.

The long-overdue commitment from the state is most welcome.