As names go, the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge rolls off the tongue about as well as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from “Mary Poppins,” and fits about as well on a sign, too. But the latter is nonsensical while the former is sorely needed — the steel bridge, after all, will be 80 years old next year.
However, there is some nonsense associated with the planned bridge replacement: the bickering over whether the new bridge will have a dedicated cycling and pedestrian lane. While a protected and dedicated lane is a good idea and may serve future interests beyond occasional cycling tours — who knows how development will take place on either side of the Potomac River 20 or 30 years down the road — the wrangling over the state’s approach, mostly by those who don’t live here or drive on U.S. 301, is unnecessary and premature. And it certainly shouldn’t put the project at risk, especially since traffic along 301 is expected to double by 2040.
As reported just last week in the Maryland Independent, the Maryland Department of Transportation originally announced that the design of the replacement bridge would include a separate biker-pedestrian lane. As it was put out to bid — with construction expected to begin early next year — the department decided to have bidders prepare cost estimates for bridge designs with and without the dedicated lane, in case the cost with the lane exceeds the dollars currently allocated for the project. Since then, the transportation people in charge have said they’ll give the dedicated lane consideration and haven’t just simply dropped the idea.
The Charles County Board of Commissioners have it right in both asking for the lane to be restored in the plans and also accepting the fact that the state necessarily needs to consider the cost of the project. The total cost is currently pegged at around $769 million, and would only increase with yet more years of delay should the project falter over disagreements between the state and regional planners, who recently signed off on the deal to pave the way for federal funds, though not without complaining over the state’s approach.
The fact of the matter is, the project had been languishing for a number of years before the Hogan administration came up with a plan to reduce costs and get the bridge replacement moving forward.
Costs shouldn’t simply be ignored, as apparently some regional planners believe, but adding cycling and pedestrian lanes to all of our bridges makes sense. Not only does it encourage tourism, it’s the type of thing that may play a central role in future development.
“Today, this bridge connects two rural areas in Virginia and Maryland,” Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II said, as reported in the Independent on July 31. “As our region grows, this area is likely to transform into a walkable, livable community that demands the necessary accommodations for safe travel.”
And, as we reported last week, Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats, and our own Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), the current majority leader in the House, have spoken up about helping to find more federal funds specifically for keeping the cycling and pedestrian lane in the final design. So, all this wrangling may become moot if extra funding sources can be secured.
Until then, let’s see what the bidders come up with this fall. Maybe a dedicated lane won’t cost too much, or a better idea for one will emerge.
“We’re hopeful those bids come in at an affordable level, making the separated bike lane possible,” Collins said.
We’re hopeful, too.