The Charles County Board of Commissioners has approved a letter to the Maryland Transportation Authority asking it to consider a compromise design for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge that would preserve a dedicated lane for bicycles and pedestrians on the narrower roadway favored by the state.
The alternative design, which evolved out of discussions between county planning staff and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board, would convert one of the bridge’s four car lanes into a bike and pedestrian lane and make the middle lane reversible to handle traffic in alternating directions depending on traffic demands.
To avoid driver discomfort caused by facing oncoming traffic without a physical barrier, the proposed design would use a barrier transfer machine, also called a “road zipper,” to move barriers from one side of the lane to the other.
County planning director Jason Groth explained to the county commissioners that the proposal was developed in response to the decision by the Maryland Department of Transportation to reduce the cost of the bridge by reducing the width of the inner and outer shoulder lanes and eliminating the bike lane completely.
“The elimination of that bicycle/pedestrian lane alone is estimated by ... the state to be $60 million by itself,” Groth said.
The county commissioners, the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland and the TPB have all written letters of support for retaining the bike lane, as have many residents who wrote to MTA during a public comment period.
At the request of the county, MTA explored the possibility of keeping the existing bridge in place as a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian crossing. MTA estimated that it would cost $46.7 million in 2015 dollars over 30 years to maintain the bridge — approximately $1.6 million per year — not counting the costs of regular inspections or adjusting for inflation.
MTA is currently seeking bids on the bridge design and is asking designers to break out the estimated prices of including the wider shoulders and the bike lane so that the state has the option of selecting some, all or none of those individual components for inclusion in the final bridge design.
Bids are being accepted through the fall, with construction expected to begin early next year and be completed in 2023.
“We’re already getting phone calls in our office for mobilization of contractors,” Groth said. “They’re looking for sites to [place] their heavy equipment, to stage their workforce, their office trailers, that sort of thing.”
“It is a very active project,” he said.
Groth explained that one of the factors driving the decision process on the bike lane is MTA’s decision to apply for a low-interest federal loan to fund construction, which would be administered by MWCOG’s Transportation Planning Board. The TPB, of which Charles County is a member, is debating whether to approve the allocation of the funding pending MTA’s commitment to the inclusion of the bike lane in the final design.
“Currently this is an item that is before the TPB and is one of the reasons I am before you today,” Groth said.
Another consideration is the recent revelation that the Virginia Department of Transportation is “studying” the U.S. 301 corridor, which crosses from Virginia to Maryland via the Nice/Middleton Bridge, as a way to bypass congestion on Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway. Transportation consultant Gary Hodge first brought this proposal to the attention of the county commissioners in early April.
“Knowing that this project is coming, [VDOT] is essentially encouraging people to go our way,” Groth said. “In some ways this would be nice because people will be traveling through our county and patronizing our businesses. In other ways, it could [mean] a lot of freight traffic, a lot of truck traffic.”
Groth noted that large tractor-trailer trucks carrying trash to large landfills in Virginia already use U.S. 301, and he expected this would increase following the completion of the new bridge.
“We’re going to see a considerable amount of traffic coming up 301 and the first place we’ll really see it is when they hit Route 6 in La Plata,” Groth said. “The traffic we see in La Plata today is going to increase.”
Currently an estimated 18,000 cars a day travel across the bridge. Traffic along the length of U.S. 301 is expected to double by 2040.
“If we’re already anticipating that the traffic is going to be that much more, then I think that they need to make accommodations for the bridge to anticipate the future growth,” said Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D). “It’s a 100-year bridge [design], so you might as well put it in right.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D), Groth said that the reversible middle lane could be used as an emergency lane for ambulances and tow trucks in the event of an accident.
Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) suggested that rather than supporting the reversible-lane option, the county commissioners should reiterate their support for the original design with full inner and outer shoulders and a dedicated bike lane but also ask MTA whether it would be willing to consider the alternative if the state was unwilling to proceed with the original design.
Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) agreed with Stewart’s suggestion and asked Groth to draft a letter for the commissioners’ signatures to be sent to MTA.
“We don’t need to make it an easy choice for them,” Collins said. “Why should we sell ourselves short?”