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Commentary Transportation

Opinion: Lessons from the destruction of the old Nice-Middleton bridge.

Construction of the new Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas ‘Mac’ Middleton Bridge was underway in November 2021. Photo by Maryland Transportation Authority.

By Eric Brenner

The writer is the former chair of the Maryland Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee. 

Memo: To the next governor

After learning of your (and it doesn’t matter who wins, both gubernatorial candidates voiced the same position) interest in considering the re-use of the old Nice-Middleton Bridge as an outdoor recreation asset for bicyclists and pedestrians — a position shared by our congressional leadership — Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Ports sped up the process of not just opening the new bridge, but also doing enough damage to the old bridge to deny you the option of repurposing it.

The new Nice-Middleton Bridge, with no shoulders and the removal of the promised bike/pedestrian path, will only be part of the Hogan administration’s bicycle and pedestrian legacy in Southern Maryland. They’ve also saddled the next administration with the problem of how to complete the demolition, since they’ll only do the easy parts before you take office.  

The bar couldn’t be lower when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian trail activity for your administration. As you choose your new MDOT secretary, and replace the current executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, you will have on your team two of the people who can help recover some of the ground that Maryland has lost to neighboring states (Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania). If you focus a tiny bit of attention on long distance trails, major accomplishments are there for the taking.

In Maryland, in lieu of state leadership, local governments have been left to nibble away at projects in small, annual increments from a variety of small grant programs. States that have provided leadership and resources for regional projects that cross multiple jurisdictions have produced many more miles of trails, providing safe routes for local walkers and bikers at a time when bicycle and pedestrian fatalities are increasing, while also attracting free-spending tourists from other states. 

Improve transparency, or at least just be more honest. This one is easy, goes way beyond bike/pedestrian issues, and involves climbing out of a hole that has left local jurisdictions and regional planning authorities skeptical that they can trust information coming out of MDOT. On the new Nice-Middleton Bridge, documents that did not support MdTA’s decision to remove the promised bike/pedestrian path were hidden, project dates were intentionally left incorrect on the website, and promises were made to get through the regulatory process with the knowledge that those promises would be broken after it was too late to do anything about it.

This behavior on the Nice-Middleton Bridge project made it tougher to build support for the larger and more complicated Interstate 495 and I-270 toll lane project, particularly when local and regional officials encountered similar patterns of obfuscation.   

Whatever decisions you make on the I-495 and I-270 project, the honest sharing of MDOT studies and documents will be appreciated and noticed by all sides, even those who ultimately disagree with your preferred option.   

Complete streets legislation. Support legislation to remove the current “complete streets” exemption for MdTA, which allows the toll authority to remain isolated on their island and able to avoid the rules that apply to all other highway projects where all users (not just motor vehicles) are considered. Few things are more important for bicyclists and pedestrians than using bridges to navigate over water, highways, or railroad tracks, and this is the one thing that MdTA currently doesn’t have to consider. If MdTA has a reason to avoid these accommodations on a particular project let them make the case, but don’t let them start with the position that they only have to think about people traveling in cars and trucks. Your early support for this legislation will show the outdoor recreation community that Maryland is ready to compete with (or at least catch up to) the rest of the country.

Susquehanna River crossing. The single biggest gap in the East Coast Greenway (ECG), the 3,000-mile trail that runs from Key West to Canada, is at the Susquehanna River. Between U.S. 40, I-95, and Conowingo Road there are currently 12 vehicular lanes across the river and no pedestrian access at all between the nine most eastern Maryland counties and the rest of the state (and bicycle access for only the most fearless riders). With Amtrak planning a series of new bridge improvements across the river, this would be the time to request and embed a non-motorized crossing at this location. That would transform the economies of Havre de Grace and Perryville by opening up to all ages and abilities access to the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway with connections to Perryville’s MARC and Amtrak service, not to mention what could become the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. 

President Biden himself has discussed this concept of a bicycle and pedestrian river crossing at the bill signing to provide a federal designation for the September 11th National Memorial Trail (which uses the ECG route in Maryland), but Biden awaits some interest in such a creative, forward thinking approach coming from MDOT. New York State achieved a similar efficient co-existence of Amtrak rail and bike/ped in the design of the upcoming Livingston Avenue project in Albany linking to the Empire State Trail. A critical component of the Long Bridge project across the Potomac River between Virginia and Washington, D.C., includes not just passenger and freight rail service, but a separate bike/pedestrian accommodation.     

Inter-Agency Cooperation (it’s not just about MDOT). The Susquehanna River crossing is one of many regional projects where a little bit of attention from the governor’s office, or even from the new MDOT secretary, in conjunction with the secretaries at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Commerce (tourism promotion), will both make a difference and reverse past policy. DNR and Commerce were not just ignored, but told to stay away, by the current administration as the Nice-Middleton bridge project unraveled, even though their expertise and interest was far greater than what existed at MdTA.   

Yes, the Maryland Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MBPAC) lives in statute, and a host of state agencies send staff to sit in on these meetings, but without attention from the cabinet secretaries, the impact of this organization is minimal. When they recently approved a letter to the governor (it’s the governor’s advisory committee, even though staffed by MDOT) supporting the retention of the old Nice-Middleton Bridge, MDOT staff did not even submit the letter to the governor.

The reality of MBPAC was accurately captured In the movie Animal House. The misfits who visit the popular Omega fraternity house are politely shunted to a back room where they are given the chance to talk among themselves. None was ever asked to join the fraternity.  

Eastern Shore: Virginia is constructing a 60-mile north-south rail trail on the Eastern Shore that will end just 12 miles south of the Maryland state line. Project planners in both Maryland and Virginia would like to extend this trail into Worcester County to connect with the Pocomoke Forest Wildland Trail. A regional coalition of nine counties is working on plans for a regional trail network that would reconnect communities using abandoned or low activity rail corridors on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, many of which MDOT controls the right of way.  

They’d also like to see bike/pedestrian accommodations included in the new MD Route 90 Bridge to Ocean City. The current design options on the MDOT State Highway Administration project site only show vehicle traffic lanes. Maryland’s governor should recognize and reward the bottom-up, regional coordination taking place in a part of the state where smaller county governments often struggle to compete for grant money with the larger counties west of the Bay Bridge.

Prince George’s: With the bridge construction on the WB&A trail underway across the Patuxent River, a complete, off-road bike/ped route between D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis is finally within reach. The WB&A trail now ends at MD Route 704, a short distance from the extensive Capital Trails Network and the Anacostia River trail system. Filling that last gap would be a project worthy of national attention. 

Baltimore County: One of the best rail trails in the region (Torrey C. Brown) runs for 40 miles connecting York, Pa., to the northern suburbs of Baltimore, where it falls short of connecting to the spectacular Jones Falls trail system stretching north out of Baltimore City. Bikers are left to navigate those last confusing and sometimes dangerous miles. Mapping the location of this missing piece is easy, but coordinating the local jurisdictions will tax the skills of regional planners. A tiny bit of support and coordination (and interest) from the governor’s office will make a big difference.

Garrett County: A 100% off-road trail runs 330 miles, connecting Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., using the 182-mile C&O Canal National Historical Park’s towpath. The economic benefits of this heavily used trail have been extensively documented ($90/day in direct spending by trail users, $494 in total trip spending by multi-day users) and Garrett County has a chance to link up to the route just above the Pennsylvania state line, pulling in some of these economic benefits into their already robust trail system.

These are just a handful of the many trail projects awaiting completion across Maryland, which form the beginnings of an impressive statewide trail network that could be mapped and prioritized for development by state leaders. The staff at DNR and MDOT (within SHA and the Policy Office, not at MdTA) know where the best projects are, and competently manage the arcane funding streams that support local efforts each year, but it would sure be a lot easier to make progress with some attention and support from the governor, and an MDOT secretary willing to work with other state agencies.

While hardly a perfect “bike friendly” measure, the most recent (2022) state comparison conducted by the League of American Bicyclists ranks Maryland #14 in the country, behind Pennsylvania (#12 ) and Virginia (#7) (https://bikeleague.org/content/state-report-cards). In 2014 Maryland was ranked #7 nationally, well ahead of Virginia (#18) and Pennsylvania (#19). Pennsylvania and Virginia have blown past Maryland in their support for long distance trails during the past eight years.

COVID pushed trail usage to record numbers all over the country, at the same time that bicycle and pedestrian fatalities have also increased. States like Virginia and Pennsylvania are doing more than just paying lip-service in responding to these recent trends.

The Pittsburgh-to-D.C. bike trail is on every list of the best long-distance trails in the country with a well-documented economic impact that is equally obvious to anyone who has visited one of the canal or trail towns along the way.   

And yet, Maryland has done little to duplicate these results in other parts of the state.

The neglect of MDOT leadership towards bike trail activity has at least allowed lower level MDOT staff to manage the series of long-term smaller grant programs that local governments can fight over. The state has approved multiple grants to improve the trail surface along the C&O Canal towpath, getting it closer to the surface quality once the trail moves north from Cumberland to Pittsburgh on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail.

When MDOT/MdTA leadership did choose to get involved in a big way, it was through their sabotaging of any efforts to re-use the old Nice-Middleton Bridge for bikes and pedestrians. DNR and Commerce were left to deal with the negative impact of this one high-profile action on their broader efforts to increase outdoor recreation and long distance bike trail tourism across the state, and in the eyes of the rest of the country.  

The demolition of the old Nice-Middleton Bridge, done mostly out of spite (the new bridge could have opened while the old bridge was left alone) three months before you take office, has increased attention on these issues and provided you with an unexpected chance to reclaim the ground that Maryland has lost during the past eight years.