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Cycling advocates pan Maryland-Virginia bridge crossing plan as potentially deadly

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.

A proposal to allow cyclists to cross the Potomac via the recently opened Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas ‘Mac’ Middleton Bridge is being rejected as too dangerous.

Cycling advocates from around the state described the proposal, which includes a light system warning motorists that a cyclist is on the bridge, as “ludicrous” and “unconscionable” and “malpractice.” Advocates say if the proposal moves forward, cycling enthusiasts would be unlikely to use the bridge because of safety concerns.

“It’s a highly dangerous proposal that will result in someone being killed,” said Jed Weeks, interim executive director and policy director or Bikemore, a Baltimore-based cycling advocacy group.

The organization typically focuses on issues in the Baltimore region.

“We felt this was like such a dangerous idea that we had to comment even though it is sort of out of our jurisdiction,” said Weeks.

The transportation authority, which operates the bridge, proposes allowing cyclists the full use of the far-right travel lanes on both the north and south bound sides of the bridge. Cyclists entering the bridge would push a button triggering flashing lights meant to alert motorists to the presence of a cyclist.

The warning system would operate for 10-15 minutes to allow a crossing. The cyclist would continue to share the 12-foot-wide lane with motor vehicles.

“So what we’re left with is a plan to flash a blinking light at drivers driving 50 miles an hour to warn them there might be a bike on the bridge and that’s the plan, right?” said Weeks. “I would describe that as engineering malpractice. I would say that anyone affiliated with a decision like that has no business designing bike or pedestrian infrastructure and should be banned from the practice.”

The current plan grew from a decision by former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and his transportation leaders to not include bike and pedestrian lanes on the newly constructed bridge.

David Brickley, owner of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail on the Virginia side of the Potomac, said he’s grateful for the efforts of Maryland’s new governor and blamed Hogan for leaving few options. Even so, Brickley said the proposal isn’t safe for cyclists.

“I wonder if (Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul) Wiedefeld would feel this is a good, safe option for bicyclists to go from Virginia to Maryland and from Maryland to Virginia?” asked Brickley. “I wonder if he would feel safe bicycling over the bridge?”

Brickley’s organization unsuccessfully sued Maryland in federal court in an effort to block the demolition of the aging Gov. Harry Nice Bridge that ran parallel to its replacement.

The effort to create a cycling pathway is part of a larger debate in Maryland and other states about the creation of trail networks open to cyclists and pedestrians.

Advocates say such a network would encourage tourism and allow for long-range cycling trips.

Brickley said he and others believed dedicating the older structure to bikes and pedestrians would have drawn visitors. The bridge and its views, he said, could have been a “national treasure.”

“How can it be replaced?” said Brickley. “It just can’t.”

The Maryland Transportation Authority is accepting comments on the new lighted crossing proposal through Wednesday, May 10.

The agency declined to make an official available for an interview. In lieu of answering questions, a spokesperson provided a general statement about the proposal that included details already made public.

“Public input and safety of bicyclists and motorists are paramount,” the agency said in an unattributed statement.

“Following the comment period, MDTA will review and consider public input prior to finalizing and implementing the bicycle lane features,” according to the agency statement.

The system is similar to one used to allow bike crossing of the Susquehanna River using the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge. The 1.3-mile toll structure connecting Havre de Grace to Cecil County was the first in Maryland to allow bike access.

Originally, cyclists had limited daily access. Later, that access was reduced to weekends and state holidays from dawn to dusk.

“So knowing that and having made that decision on that bridge, it was kind of unconscionable for them to make the same decision on this bridge after the fact and after they already had that failure as an example,” said Weeks.

State transportation authority officials say they’ve incorporated lessons from the Hatem Bridge bike access plans into the proposal for the Nice-Middleton Bridge.

“What we learned from providing cyclists safe lane sharing at the Hatem Bridge is that it’s critical to get input from all stakeholders — cyclists, communities, and motorists before putting this kind of operational policy into effect,” the statement from the transportation authority said.

The lane-sharing option is meant to allow cyclists to traverse the bridge to and from southern Maryland.

“It doesn’t really provide any modicum of safety for anybody who’s not in a car or truck,” said Peter Gray, interim chair for Bikemore and the Maryland organizer for the Washington Area Bicyclists Association. “You’re in traffic. Traffic is high speed. There’s a two-foot shoulder which is basically no shoulder and the accommodation for bikes is: you can press a button and it’ll flash a sign telling people that there’s a bike on the road.”

The current option was not one preferred by pedestrians and bicyclists.

“To put bikes on a long, narrow span, crossing a body of water, it’s just ludicrous,” said Gray. “There’s no way that that can be safe for anybody who’s on a bike, much less anybody who’s walking. I mean, we don’t have people walking on the Beltway or 695 or 95.”

The new four-lane, 1.7-mile bridge opened in October. It replaced a 75-year old, two-lane span connecting Charles County to Dahlgren, Virginia along Route 301.

The original two-lane bridge was steep and narrow. It lacked a shoulder or barrier separating northbound and southbound lanes.

Then Hogan and state transportation officials deemed the aging structure too old to be rehabilitated.

Advocacy groups hoped a modern structure would include a dedicated path for cyclists and pedestrians.

Hogan and state transportation officials ultimately dashed hopes for a new crossing that included bike and pedestrian access. Instead, the authority opted for a passage optimized for cars and trucks and a promise to accommodate cyclists.

Walter Roscello, advocacy chair for the Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club, said the authority made a commitment to opening the bridge to cyclists even without a dedicated lane.

“If I were speaking directly to an administrator, what I would tell them is: It was MDTA that made the choice to not include the separate lane. It was MDTA’s rationale that they could provide bicycle accommodation using other means,” said Roscello. “So to me, that means that MDTA should not be allowed to use any new impacts that they supposedly identify, as justification for restricting when bicycles can use the bridge. If they say it’ll cause a traffic back up or they don’t think it’s safe during these times of the day, to me they’ve already made that commitment, when they said they could provide a safe crossing using these means.”


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Cycling advocates pan Maryland-Virginia bridge crossing plan as potentially deadly