Biking Enthusiasts Seek New Use For Existing Nice/Middleton Bridge

The Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton Bridge crosses the Potomac River from Charles County to Virginia. With a new span under construction, biking groups on both sides of the Potomac want Maryland and Virginia to consider keeping the old bridge as a dedicated bike crossing. Creative Commons photo.

A group of biking enthusiasts from both sides of the Potomac is urging officials in Maryland and Virginia to consider a new use for the existing Nice-Middleton Bridge in Charles County.

With construction underway on a new span, the group is trying to convince the Maryland Transportation Authority and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to leave the existing span standing.

In a letter to Northam, they suggest converting the bridge into “a unique, world-class recreation facility.”

“With the construction of a new bridge across the Potomac at Dahlgren (Va.), we ask for your leadership to explore how we can work with our friends in Maryland to save the soon-to-be redundant Nice-Middleton Bridge from the wrecking ball and convert it into the longest dedicated bicycling and pedestrian bridge in the world,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by Eric Brenner, founding director of the Maryland Governor’s Grants Office, David Brickley, head of the Dahlgren Heritage Trail Association, and Champe Burnley, past president of the Va. Bicycling Federation.

Maryland owns the bridge, which carries Route 301 traffic from Newburg to King George County, and has allocated $17 million to tear it down when the new structure is complete.

Advocates are still steamed that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) reneged on a pledge to include a separated bike/pedestrian trail on the new Nice-Middleton bridge. Pete K. Rahn, the governor’s transportation secretary at the time, said the bike lane would cost too much.

Brenner, a Hogan appointee to the Bike/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, resigned to protest the administration’s reversal.

In their letter to Northam, biking enthusiasts claim that the MdTA “has indicated that if any entity was willing to accept the existing structure, they could be willing to share some of this savings with the party taking control.”

Converting the old bridge to a new use is more difficult than it might appear.

In a reply to the trio, Marcie Parker, a district engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation, laid out the long list of hurdles that would have to be overcome.

For starters, the piers on the two bridges are in different places, meaning ships would have to weave their wave between two sets of non-aligned support structures.

A non-profit taking over ownership of the existing span would become completely responsible for on the 80-year-old structure — including maintenance, cleaning, waterproofing, environmental remediation and inspections.

They would also become liable for anything that happened on or to the structure.

None of that comes cheap.

“A biennial bridge safety inspection for a structure of this size is estimated to cost around $1 million, using 2021 dollars,” Parker wrote. “Every four years, an underwater bridge inspection and hydrographic surveys would be needed, which are estimated to cost an additional $125,000.”

Long-term costs could easily run into the tens of millions of dollars, she added.

Parker also said that the railings would need to be increased in height for safety purposes, the bridge would need to be made ADA-compliant, restroom facilities would need to be added and snow- and trash-removal arranged for.

She suggested that the unusually steep, 1.7-mile-long structure “may not be appropriate for many recreational users.” And she said finding space for pedestrians and bikers to access the old span when the new one opens will be extremely difficult.

In seeking Gov. Northam’s support for a conversion of the existing span, the biking enthusiasts noted that the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge in New York was repurposed as the Walkway over the Hudson — drawing millions of visitors and becoming a popular part of the Empire State Trail Network.

They said the Nice-Middleton bridge “would take its place as the longest facility of its kind in the world and we believe it would have a similar draw for visitors and tourists.”

But Parker noted that rail bridges are flat, making them easier to navigate than the pitched Nice-Middleton Bridge.

Maryland’s application for federal permits to build the new bridge was predicated on the demolition of the existing span. If the MdTA were to change course, by transferring ownership of the span to a new entity, Parker said the state would have to go through the process of amending its permit.

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.