Transportation Panel Votes to Move U.S. 301 Bridge Project Forward

The Transportation Planning Board, meeting today in Washington, D.C., voted 17-7 to approve plans to replace the Governor Harry W. Nice/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge.

A regional transportation panel threw its support behind the state’s proposal to replace an aging Southern Maryland bridge — despite sharp divisions stemming from the Hogan administration’s unwillingness to commit to a dedicated lane for bicycles and pedestrians.

The Transportation Planning Board, meeting in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, voted 17-7 to approve plans to replace the Governor Harry W. Nice/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge. The result means the Maryland Department of Transportation can seek low-interest federal financing considered key to making the $769 million project a reality.

The current span, which connects Charles County, Md., and King George County, Va., is nearly 80 years old. The two-lane bridge lacks modern safety features and is frequently congested. It handles 6.6 million vehicles a year, far more than it was designed for.

In announcing plans to build a new bridge in 2016, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said the new bridge would be four lanes, with grade-separated bike and pedestrian lanes.

The state’s decision to backtrack from that commitment disappointed biking enthusiasts and the Charles County commissioners, who have unanimously supported dedicated lanes for cyclists and pedestrians since 2009.

The Governor Harry W. Nice/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge on U.S. 301 in Newburg. Maryland Transportation Authority photo

MDOT Deputy Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. told the panel a decision will be made later this year after contractors submit project bids. He said bike lanes will be included “if they are affordable.”

But several members of the Transportation Planning Board expressed opposition to the state’s approach.

“Personally, I think this is an insult,” said Greenbelt Councilman Rodney M. Roberts. “The state made a commitment … to include the bike lanes. They can commit right here and now today, but they refuse to do so.”

“It’s a hundred-year decision,” said District Councilman Charles Allen (D). “I don’t know why we can’t get make the right decision upfront, rather than hope it works out.”

Reuben B. Collins II (D), president of the Charles County commissioners, acknowledged the fiscal realities the state faces, but he expressed hope that the final design includes bike lanes.

“Today this bridge connects two rural areas,” he said. “As our region grows, this area is likely to transform into a walkable, livable community that demands the necessary accommodations for safe travel.”

Despite the state’s unwillingness to commit to bike lanes, Collins voted to approve the project as configured.

Lewis told the panel the state is aware of the strong desire to include bike lanes.

“We are constantly listening to input from many, many different stakeholders,” he said. “And yes, there are way more projects that we would like to do than we have the resources for. So we are in a position where we do have to make tough decisions.”

Lewis rejected the suggestion from Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton that the Hogan administration has already made its decision.

“I think Mr. Lewis has made it clear to us they’re going to come back and tell us it’s not affordable,” she said.

“I take a little bit of offense [to the notion] that we’re going to ignore everything we’ve heard,” Lewis responded. “I don’t work that way.”

Newton surprised many of her colleagues by voting to advance the project, despite her strong comments.

Hogan’s U-turn on bike lanes led to the abrupt resignation of Eric Brenner, chairman of the Maryland Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

In his resignation letter, Brenner accused the state of threatening Charles County officials, “saying that unless the amendment is passed the way they want, they would eliminate the entire bridge project and just let the current bridge further deteriorate.”

“Presenting this as an option does not meet any standard of credibility,” he added.

Two members of the planning board, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed with Brenner’s assessment.

“They got bullied,” the pair said of the Charles County officials following the vote.

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