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Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced Thursday that he has included $20 million for the design and engineering of a replacement for the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge across the Patuxent River in the state’s new transportation plan.

The governor released the new transportation plan after signing into law the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act, a tax hike on gasoline. The $20 million to design a replacement bridge linking Calvert and St. Mary’s counties is part of a new package of $1.2 billion for highway and transit projects the higher gas tax is expected to help fund.

Expressing her surprise when she heard the news Thursday, Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) called the bridge funding “awesome,” adding, “Well, that’s wonderful news. ... I’m very happy and grateful. That’s absolutely wonderful.”

Estimates to replace the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge, which links Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, have been upwards of $800 million. The Maryland State Highway Administration has been studying how to enlarge or replace the span since 2007. Shaw said she and Commissioner Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) have been actively working to get a new bridge for 11 years. Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-Calvert, St. Mary’s, Charles) has been working on it for even longer, Shaw said.

In a May 14 letter to O’Malley, State Sen. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) and Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said the bridge “has become a serious bottleneck for commuters to and from [Patuxent River Naval Air Station] from Calvert County. It is also a critical evacuation route in the event of an incident at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear [Power Plant] or at the Liquid Natural Gas facility at Cove Point. For these reasons, we hope that you will consider moving this project into a position to be funded as quickly as possible.”

The letter continued, “We recognize that this costly project ... has been on hold indefinitely pending sufficient funding in the Transportation Trust Fund. With newly generated revenues from the Transportation Infrastructure Act, we hope this will cause you to take a fresh look at this important project for Southern Maryland.”

“I think [this] shows that they’re looking out for their constituents” in Southern Maryland, Shaw said, adding “I have been very critical of the fact that the state maintains the top 20 transportation prioirties and it hasn’t been on there.”

Bohanan said Thursday the new funding “should kick off what will ultimately end up with the construction of a new bridge. This moves the project ahead and we’ll get it done. It will be built. It’s been a big question mark the past decade and now we have a path forward.”

In 1974, when the then-unnamed bridge linking St. Mary’s to Solomons was under construction, the state estimated it would carry 1,400 vehicles a day. Now the Maryland State Highway Administration says it carries about 30,000 vehicles a day. “There was no growth projection that would ever imagine us being at 30,000,” Bohanan said. “It is clearly a major project, but one that we badly need.”

The higher gas taxes are expected to generate an average of $800 million annually. Effective July 1, the gas tax indexes the current 23.5 cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax to the Consumer Price Index to adjust for inflation, but limits the increase so it cannot exceed 8 percent a year. It also applies 1 percent of the state sales tax to the gas tax rate before state and federal taxes.

“This historic transportation bill allows us to move forward with the first new major transportation projects in more than eight years and get our construction industry back to work,” O’Malley said in a statement.

The Maryland State Highway’s project calls for a replacement bridge span of the Thomas Johnson bridge. The existing bridge opened Dec. 17, 1977 at a cost of $26 million and rises 140 feet over the Patuxent River. The replacement span would be 75 feet south of the current bridge at a height of 80 to 105 feet, said John Groeger, deputy director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

The Thomas Johnson bridge was closed for structural flaws from June 20 to Aug. 21, 1988, when 21 of 58 of its pier caps were strengthened for a cost of $3.5 million.

The state is also looking at how to upgrade the intersection of routes 235 and 4 in California, Md., leading to the bridge. The St. Mary’s commissioners support an urban intersection where Route 4 would go underneath Route 235, but the state supports a flyover span from Route 4 to merge onto southbound Route 235.

Meanwhile, the state will widen northbound Route 4 leading to the bridge and add a 3,000-foot-long lane from the Route 235 intersection to Patuxent Boulevard. The project is in design and the goal is to bid the project this fall and start construction in 2014. The estimated cost is $4 million to $4.5 million.

jbabcock@somdnews.com