Opinion: Implications of the Broken Promise on the Nice Bridge

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and MDOT Secretary Pete K. Rahn at a Gov. Harry W. Nice/Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton Bridge announcement in November 2016. Maryland Governor's Office photo

During the first year of the Hogan administration, I was asked by the governor to chair the Maryland Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee. This came at the end of a process started by our mutual friend Steve Kreseski, who served as chief of staff for Gov. Robert Ehrlich. In addition to being a partisan Republican, and a strong biker, Steve was in the process of dying (at age 58) from pulmonary fibrosis.

My goals for this committee were small: create a place where advocates and state officials could safely share ideas and learn from each other and show that (as Steve believed) good bike policies were non-partisan, not to be automatically ceded to the Democrats. Members were added representing tourism and business interests from Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.

There had been some progress and I enjoyed being a small part of the Hogan administration, making it easier to defend (or at least explain) the agency decisions that I might have wished had gone a different way … until this past July when I resigned my position as chair.

The promise

On Nov. 21, 2016, a press release announced that there would be a much-needed rebuilding of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge (U.S. 301) across the Potomac River, and “the new bridge will include a barrier separated bicycle and pedestrian path.”

With the promise of a 100-year legacy bridge, plans were started in Virginia to link their trail system to the new bridge and the ever-increasing trail network in Southern Maryland. Private businesses began work with Charles County tourism authorities based on this same promise.

The reason

This decision was consistent with Gov. Larry Hogan’s creation of the Maryland Outdoor Recreation Economic Commission at almost the same time. That group was tasked with spreading the benefits to the rural economy resulting from trail tourism on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland (where multi-day bike riders spend $125 per day in the community) to Southern Maryland.

The deception

In January 2018, the Maryland Transportation Authority unilaterally broke the previous commitment of a barrier-separated path on the bridge, citing no change in the governor’s position, no new economic impact data on how this would harm the local economy, no new cost estimates on this part of the project, and no outreach to or consultation with the many agencies or commissions working to increase rural recreational economic activity.

Without the promise of the barrier-separated path in the new bridge announcement, those serving on the Outdoor Economic Commission — along with staff at Commerce and the Department of Natural Resources — would have still argued strongly for its inclusion. However, the commitment had been made, and to have MdTA unilaterally reverse this promise 15 months after the initial announcement put a number of people in difficult positions, myself included.

History repeats itself (in the wrong way)

When the Intercounty Connector was first proposed, MdTA used the promise of an adjacent barrier-separated path to gather public support. Once they had secured financing and regulatory approvals, they broke the promise by never completing the path. That was done during a prior administration​ but MdTA used the exact same bait-and-switch tactic with the U.S. 301 bridge, only this time Gov. Hogan’s name was on the initial promise.

The Transportation Planning Board (Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments)

Earlier this year the Maryland Department of Transportation and MdTA submitted an amendment to the already approved Transportation Improvement Plan to eliminate the commitment of the barrier-separated path. The Transportation Planning Board, consisting of jurisdictions throughout the region, questioned MDOT/MdTA on the reversal and received a series of mistruths on estimates of vehicular and non-motorized bridge users. There were no efforts to seek local economic information on the negative impact of removing the path.

In 2016, MdTA allowed bikes to legally cross the Hatem Bridge (Route 40 over the Susquehanna River) with few new accommodations, saying that it would be too expensive to retrofit an 80-year-old bridge, while also saying that when a new bridge was built, a protected path would be an obvious improvement.

This year in front of the Transportation Planning Board, MdTA claimed that the Hatem Bridge option (bikes sharing lanes with speeding cars and trucks, no pedestrians at all, and the very low user numbers that resulted) was a success worthy of imitation.

Bridge
The Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge crosses the Potomac River from Charles County to Virginia.

The threat

The Transportation Planning Board staff and members saw through the sloppy and deceptive information on usage and safety, and the Transportation Improvement Plan amendment was about to be rejected, when MdTA asked for a delay, rather than a no vote. The amendment was placed on the agenda for a later meeting, but instead of clarifying the original promise of the barrier-separated path (and eliminating the need to fabricate data to defend the broken promise) MdTA re-submitted the same language, but only after threatening Charles County with the pledge that unless the amendment was passed the way MdTA wanted, they would eliminate the entire bridge project and just let the current bridge further deteriorate.

Presenting this as an option did not meet any standard of credibility, but with Charles County forced to vote with MdTA, this was enough to barely secure the votes at the planning board to lock in the broken promise. Another author may want to discuss the regional planning value of the TPB if all it takes is the support of the directly impacted jurisdiction to secure the votes of others in the region.

Fallout, the impact on the 495/270 toll lanes

MdTA never considered the impact that breaking this commitment would have on the Maryland State Highway Administration’s work with local jurisdictions on the 495/270 toll lane project. Many local officials were already skeptical that MDOT could be trusted to keep commitments on design/build and P3 (public-private partnership) projects, or to share data in any meaningful way. When MdTA mocked the supporters of the barrier-separated path who don’t live in Charles County and who would travel to use the bridge, they make it harder for me (I live four blocks from the Beltway in Montgomery County) to convince my neighbors that there is a greater good in reducing traffic congestion on the Beltway, even though most of the drivers who benefit will not live in Montgomery County.

SHA is the lead on the 495/270 effort, and has done a professional job of outreach and factual analysis. Their efforts are harmed when MdTA (with almost no experience with non-motorized transportation issues) makes one unforced error after another in front of the local jurisdictions on the Transportation Planning Board. Many of these members realize that congestion mitigation is needed and were looking for a way to work with and trust MDOT as this process moves along. The few members who genuinely want to see nothing done on congestion mitigation have been emboldened by the recent series of mistakes made on the U.S. 301 bridge rebuild process.

The MdTA vote

On Nov. 21, the MdTA voted to approve a contract that eliminates not just the previously promised barrier separated path, but also any type of pedestrian access. The winning bid, even with the separated path, came in below the allowable cost listed in the initial press release for the project. However, after arm-twisting the vote at the planning board, it was no surprise that MdTA still chose to remove the promised path, though they took one last shot at Southern Maryland by moving the savings to a new project on I-95, nowhere near Charles County.

If this vote had come with an apology for breaking the initial promise, and an admission that this reversal was simply about saving money, there might have been some unhappy but disgruntled closure to this process.

But that did not happen as MdTA continued to stand behind previous factual errors intended to arrive at the lowest possible user estimate. By continuing to claim a lack of overwhelming support from the people living closest to this project, MdTA makes it easier for communities adjacent to the Beltway (that strongly oppose any changes) to prevent upgrades in that region. MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn recalled the controversy surrounding his earlier decision to just open up the Hatem bridge to bikers, making what was once illegal, legal.

Unfortunately, the lesson he absorbed was not to design a better, less controversial solution for a new bridge, but to use the same unsafe stop-gap solution that was wedged onto an 80-year-old bridge nearing the end of its useful life.

The Hogan legacy

MdTA did not ask others inside MDOT (SHA, the professional bike/pedestrian staff, the consultants and contractors who do have experience with these issues) for assistance or analysis or alternatives. MDOT did not ask other state agencies or local governments how this reversed decision will impact their constituencies during the first year, or the 100th year, after the bridge is built. All of the talk about “One MDOT” and “One Maryland” rings hollow in this situation.

DNR submitted a required “recreation plan” to the federal government in order to keep grant funds flowing. As part of this process a recreation plan survey was conducted indicating that the top request from the public was for more trails and better trail connections.

Allowing MdTA to build a bridge based on a 1940 design (the Hatem Bridge) that will last well into the 22nd century indicates that the governor is not being well served by the advice he received from MDOT.

When it comes to the big decisions that MDOT makes related to the bike/pedestrian community, nothing comes close to the impact of new bridges over rivers, highways and railroad tracks. I had hoped to see a suitable trail project named in honor of Steve Kreseski, and a barrier-separated path on this new bridge would have been an ideal candidate.

Why this matters: Beyond the Nice Bridge

Unfortunately, the impact of this broken promise will stretch beyond this one project.

This year, Gov. Hogan is serving as the chair of the National Governors Association, highlighting the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure. While Maryland was never likely to appear on a best-practices list for financing non-motorized transportation projects, repeatedly promising bike and pedestrians accommodations in order to secure support for large projects, only to cut them out once approval is given, might be our advice for other states.

Voluntarily reducing toll revenue, only to later lament the lack of funds available for projects, is something else Maryland can share with our peers.

Like it or not, the support of local governments is needed to complete the 495/270 toll lane projects. Already low on trust (past promises of not having to demolish any homes or businesses having been reversed), the members of the TPB see the Nice Bridge decision as one more reason to take nothing that is promised at face value, further digging in with any regulatory opportunity to ensure they are a part of the decision-making, which will inevitably slow down the pace for making improvements.

When the Transportation Planning Board sees MdTA intentionally mislead them on the Nice Bridge analysis (e.g. no trails currently lead to the old Nice Bridge, where bikes and pedestrians are not permitted, so we won’t add a new trail on the new bridge because those connections will never be made), they are less likely to trust any findings related to any other MDOT projects, without being shown every bit of reasoning that was used along the way.

The MdTA has come under criticism for the traffic delays related to the redecking project on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a key vote on the Maryland Board of Public Works, called the project “poorly planned and executed,” expressing concern that mistakes like this cause “the public to lose confidence in state government.” What would the comptroller think when MdTA uses their inability to come up with a way to collect tolls from pedestrians and bikers (in an E-ZPass-only environment) as a reason for keeping bikers and pedestrians off the new bridge.

MdTA looked at the heavily used bike/pedestrian path on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the next closest crossing of the Potomac River, where the majority of users are pedestrians who travel to this destination just to walk the bridge. The smallest number of Wilson bridge users are daily bicycle commuters, but in order to low-ball the user estimate number on a new Nice Bridge side-path, that was the only factor considered. Whether done by incompetence, or intentional deception, the result hardly inspires public confidence in other analytical work put forward by MdTA or their parent agency MDOT.

Gov. Hogan’s brand as a different kind of Republican, one who approaches issues without the partisan blinders of past administrations of both parties, takes a hit with this decision. While able to see that vocal opponents of any form of congestion relief on 495 and 270 mask a more complex set of views held by residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the governor has accepted an outdated MDOT view of his constituents who walk and bike (that only Democrats care about these issues) to win the day via the cynical strategy used by MdTA behind the Nice Bridge rebuild.

I don’t take lightly the decision to share these views publicly. It was an honor serving in the Hogan administration, just as it was an honor working for previous governors of both parties. However, allowing MdTA to break Gov. Hogan’s original promise will not be viewed kindly in the years ahead — nor will it be correctable until the next bridge is built, more than 100 years from now.

— ERIC BRENNER

The writer is a Hogan administration appointee to the Maryland Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, who resigned his position as chairman in July 2019.

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