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The draft version of the state’s six-year transportation plan includes $6 million for preliminary engineering work on a replacement for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, a high-ranking transportation official wrote to Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton two weeks ago.

In a June 27 letter to Middleton, Maryland Transportation Authority Acting Executive Secretary Bruce Gartner wrote that the draft Consolidated Transportation Plan includes $6 million for preliminary engineering, boring and geotechnical work, as well as ordnance detection and pile testing near the replacement’s approved location, to the immediate north of the current span.

Though $6 million pales in comparison to the project’s total estimated price tag of $850 million, Middleton said the engineering work will be vital in helping determine the replacement’s ultimate cost.

Alternative pile driving methods also will be tested in coordination with the National Marine Fishery Service to help protect the shortnose and Atlantic sturgeons, both threatened species found in the Potomac River, according to the letter.

Each year, the MDTA drafts a CTP and presents it to the counties and Baltimore in the fall before delivering a final version to the Maryland General Assembly in January.

“The Nice Bridge replacement project continues to be a priority for the MDTA. We will continue to look for ways to move this project forward,” Gartner wrote. “The work we have funded in the draft CTP will provide us with valuable information to assist with moving the project forward.”

The letter came after Middleton wrote Gartner and then-MDTA Acting Chairman Darrell Mobley on June 5 urging continued project development following the completion of a six-year planning study last fall, which included federal environmental approvals.

Middleton was pleased to receive Gartner’s letter after being told last October by MDTA’s Director of Capital Planning Dennis N. Simpson that the Nice Bridge replacement was the authority’s “No. 1 priority” beyond the Intercounty Connector, which links Gaithersburg and Laurel, and express toll lanes along Interstate 95 in northeast Baltimore.

“This $6 million holds true to the commitment they made and is a very important next step,” Middleton said.

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said he was told in January at the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland’s annual meeting in Annapolis to expect good news in the near future regarding the Nice Bridge.

“Needless to say, I’m very happy to hear this,” Robinson said upon learning of Nice Bridge engineering funding.

Taken in conjunction with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) announcement Monday of nearly $650 million in transportation projects for Prince George’s County, which included $5 million for study of transit options linking Waldorf and the Branch Avenue Metro station in Marlow Heights, Robinson said that the CTP demonstrates “a real commitment.”

“This is not just petty cash that’s being thrown at these two projects,” he added. “This is an indication from Annapolis, and specifically Gov. O’Malley, that he takes Charles County very seriously and our transportation needs very seriously.”

While the transit study will be funded by the gas tax increase that went into effect July 1, the pre-engineering work on the bridge will not — all MDTA projects are paid for with toll revenue.

Middleton also said that the Federal Highway Administration has approved the location of the replacement four-lane span — adjacent to and north of the current span so as to not interfere with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, which sits just south of the bridge in Virginia.

jnewman@somdnews.com