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Transportation

Cyclist groups seek to delay demolition of old Nice Bridge over Potomac

An aerial view of the new Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

As Maryland prepares to demolish the historic Nice/Middleton Bridge that connects the southern part of the state with Virginia over the Potomac River, bicycle advocates are seeking to delay those plans until the completion of an impact study.

The bicycle advocacy groups, which include Potomac Heritage Trail Association, Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Association and Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club, allege in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland that state agencies, including the Maryland Transportation Authority, violated state and federal environmental review laws by changing the project from its original conception and failing to study the impact of demolishing the bridge. The groups, who are asking for a temporary restraining order to halt the demolition, also allege that the authority lacks the power to destroy the bridge under environmental laws.

“Using explosives to demolish parts of the Historic Nice Bridge or the rubble from the bridge to create a ‘reef’ has not been evaluated appropriately for the impact on the natural habitat and human environment, including the taking of endangered species or disruption of their habitats,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs also allege that the defendants never considered the “cumulative effects” of the construction plan and the potential demolition of the old bridge on human, environmental and historic resources, as well as on publicly or privately owned landmark sites listed or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

The old Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge, which opened in December 1940, is adjacent to the new four-lane replacement bridge.

In November 2016, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) promised a pedestrian and bicycle lane would be built alongside the new bridge’s vehicle lanes amid community access concerns and to mitigate the impact of destroying the historic bridge.

However, in 2019, the Maryland Transportation Authority approved a bridge plan that excluded the project’s originally conceived $64 million, 10-foot two-way path.

Last July, U.S. lawmakers asked Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Ports to delay destroying the historic bridge pending an evaluation.

Ports responded that the authority would proceed with its plan.

The bicycle advocacy groups included in their complaint the Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Transportation Authority, as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration for providing “permissions and funding necessary for the project without having undertaken or requiring appropriate consideration under NEPA and the other Environmental Review Laws.”

Bridge opening imminent as court sets hearing for restraining order on Tuesday.

Plans for the removal of the historic bridge are moving quickly, according to Michael MacWilliams, an attorney who represents the Maryland defendants.

MacWilliams said in an email that “mechanical demolition efforts in connection with the old bridge are scheduled to commence in earnest on Oct. 13.”

Maryland plans to move traffic to the new bridge the same day.

On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments on the restraining order in the U.S. District Court Northern Division in Baltimore at 1 p.m.

According to the construction webpage, the bridge is expected to open early next year.

The $463 million bridge replacement project includes a $13 million contribution from Virginia.

The replacement bridge will include four 12-foot-wide lanes with 2-foot shoulders, a significant expansion compared to the historic bridge’s two lanes with no shoulders. The new bridge will have all-electronic cashless tolling, a barrier-separated median between west- and eastbound lanes, and 2-foot shoulders allowing for taller ships to pass beneath its 135-foot clearance.

David Brickley, president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association and a former Virginia state delegate, said Virginia should consider partnering with Maryland to create what would be the most prominent bicycle and pedestrian crossing in the country, clocking in at 1.7 miles.

The former lawmaker recently wrote to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and members of his cabinet about considering a partnership but said he felt like “Cinderella rushing towards midnight and trying to save this bridge before it’s too late.”

Virginia and King George County previously considered taking over the old bridge but never pursued it.

Marshall Herman, a spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the agency did not conduct a study but did engage with King George County and bicycle and trail groups about their interest in retaining and repurposing the bridge.

The groups discussed the cost of regular inspection and maintenance, potential issues with marine navigation due to the alignment of the piers, and permit issues due to federal requirements within the National Environmental Policy Act.

A representative from the King George County Administration Office directed inquiries to VDOT for questions.

However, despite the lack of interest in taking over the structure, Brickley said Virginia residents have strong interest in the bridge’s future.

He pointed to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge as one of the best examples of a bridge with a separate lane for pedestrians and bicyclists. In 1995, Brickley sponsored legislation that allowed Virginia to join a regional compact for the purpose of purchasing the bridge and replacing it.

Brickley said arguments ensued over eliminating the Wilson bridge’s bicycle and pedestrian lane, much as they have for the new Nice/Middleton Bridge. However, the lane remained in the project.

“Now, if you go up to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it is a fantastic bridge for motorists and cyclists and hikers combined,” Brickley said. “It’s just what a bridge in the 21st century should be about.”

Maryland’s decision to not include such infrastructure in the new bridge is “unbelievably sad,” he said.