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 whatever the span over the Potomac is called, it is finally getting the attention it has sorely needed for decades.
After all, the two-lane U.S. 301 bridge into Virginia, which has become an even more important conduit for defense contractors here who have business relationships with the Navy base in Dahlgren, will be 80 years old next year. It’s long overdue to be replaced, and will be.
But as always seems to be the case whenever a major road project is in the works for Southern Maryland, there has been some bickering. The specific fuss about the Nice/Middleton bridge has been over whether the new span should have a dedicated cycling and pedestrian lane. We think it absolutely should.
While a protected and dedicated lane is a good idea and may serve future interests beyond occasional cycling tours — because it’s unknown how development will proceed on either side of the Potomac 20 or 30 years down the road — the wrangling over the state’s approach, mostly by those who don’t even live here or ever drive on U.S. 301, is unnecessary and premature. And it certainly shouldn’t threaten to delay or even put the whole project at risk, especially since traffic along 301 is projected to double by 2040.
As we reported recently, 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 extra lane should exceed 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.
Our neighbors, the Charles County 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 first complaining over the state’s approach. The fact of the matter is, the project had been languishing for a number of years before Gov. Larry Hogan (R) 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. And since an addition to the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge is now pretty much officially in the fantasy category, we should add such a supplemental lane to its design plan as well.
As we also recently reported, Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats, and 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 of the new Nice/Middleton span. 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 an even better idea for one will emerge.
In the meantime, folks should be careful not to burn bridges before they’re even built.