The $20 million recently announced to move forward with plans for a new Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge means it is likely to eventually be built, state highway officials said this week, but the money is not enough to fully fund the design and engineering.
That money also doesn’t address improving the intersection for Route 235 and Route 4, which feeds into the bridge, St. Mary’s County county officials were told.
Transportation officials said the design and engineering work does put the new bridge on a path to construction, though there is no target date yet.
“The $20 million is for the design of the bridge structure. That’s the first I heard that was the No. 1 priority,” said John Groeger, deputy director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation, after attending a regional infrastructure advisory committee meeting.
Groeger said the state’s priority is the new bridge first, then the approach roads to the bridge and then the intersection of routes 235 and 4, the busiest crossroads in St. Mary’s County. The estimate to design and engineer the bridge, the approaches and the intersection is $75 million, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.
The $20 million committed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for the Johnson bridge design “will probably do a significant portion” of the design work, said Charlie Gischlar, public information officer for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Is it totally enough to cover it? No. The $20 million will go a long way in advancing the design on the bridge itself.”
There is no schedule as to when the design would start, how long it would take or when actual construction would start, he said. Additional funding would be needed for right-of-way acquisition and construction. The cost of upgrading the Route 235 and Route 4 intersection and building a new span over the Patuxent River has been estimated at between $750 million and $800 million.
Once a project makes it to design, it typically goes to right of way acquisition and then construction, Groeger said. “So it is promising it’s not going to be shelved,” he said, though construction would likely require federal dollars.
“You don’t spend the $20 million unless you’re going to build the bridge,” said Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s). “Once you cross that threshold into design, that’s a pledge you’re going to build the bridge.”
Bohanan and State Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) requested the bridge design money as part of $800 million in new state revenues generated from a gas tax hike that starts July 1. Both legislators voted for that tax increase.
“We wouldn’t even be having this discussion without those new revenues,” Bohanan said. If more than $20 million is needed for the bridge’s design, “that’s what we’ll go for.”
A $6.2 million planning study on how to enlarge or replace the Thomas Johnson bridge included alternatives on how to improve traffic flow through the intersection of routes 235 and 4. That study is now complete, but the Maryland State Highway Administration hasn’t made its selection on how to upgrade the intersection, Groeger said.
The state’s preference right now is to build a flyover ramp from Route 4 onto southbound Route 235. St. Mary’s County officials prefer an urban diamond interchange, where Route 4 would go under Route 235, keeping traffic moving. Groeger said the problem with the flyover ramp is that many vehicles make right turns on Route 235 before First Colony Boulevard after they’ve come off Route 4.
The state will select its final alternative this winter, said Jeremy Beck, planning study project manager. The design and engineering of the improved intersection “would be less expensive than the bridge itself,” he said.
The Route 235 and Route 4 intersection sees an average daily traffic volume somewhere between 58,000 and 85,000 vehicles, Groeger said.
The Johnson bridge carries an average daily traffic count of 30,000 vehicles, well beyond the 1,400 vehicles the state estimated when the bridge was under construction in the 1970s.
The state’s preferred alternative for a new bridge span places it 25 to 75 feet south of the existing bridge, according to the Maryland SHA, which could displace at least three properties at Town Point.
The new bridge would have two lanes in each direction, a 4-foot-wide inside shoulder and a 10-foot-wide outside shoulder for disabled vehicles, plus a 10-foot-wide hiker/biker lane, separated from the shoulder by a barrier.
The existing Johnson bridge, opened in 1977, is 140 feet high at its tallest point. The new span does not need to be that tall and plans have it between 90 and 105 feet above the Patuxent River, Groeger said.
The state will add a 3,000-foot-long lane on Route 4 heading toward the bridge on the St. Mary’s side to more quickly move afternoon rush-hour traffic off Route 235. That project is under design and could be bid this fall. It is estimated to cost around $4 million, Gischlar said.