ANNAPOLIS — The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Tuesday he remains concerned about the future of an expected $1 billion replacement of bridge that connects Maryland to Virginia.
Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County, said comments made by state Transportation Sec. Pete K. Rahn and Bruce W. Gartner, the executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, leave him less than confident that the Harry W. Nice Bridge will progress as expected beyond the current planning phase.
“What I heard at the onset was that we’ve got money for the design and we don’t know where we’re going after that,” Middleton said. “That leaves people with a big question mark. One thing is certain is the design money is there and the studies are there, but the construction piece, and that’s the most important piece, is not.”
Middleton said the reduction in tolls means a reduction in a planned surplus that was intended to limit the amount of money that the state would have to borrow to build a replacement for the 74-year-old two-lane span that connects Charles County to King George County, Va., along Route 301.
The senator said he is concerned about a future toll increase that will be needed to pay for the structure, which was expected to be built by 2020.
“There won’t even be money for a $35 million study for a third span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge,” Middleton said, referencing the current finances for the agency.
Rahn told a joint meeting of the Senate Budget and Taxation and Finance Committees that the toll reductions will not affect the overall finances of the authority, which operates and maintains eight toll roads and bridge facilities in Maryland. The transportation secretary said the reductions were in keeping with campaign promises made by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
“As a candidate, Gov. Hogan make it clear that tolls should be reduced in the state of Maryland,” Rahn said. “The voters in Maryland agreed with that and other positions he has taken. The governor has said he believes it is more important to have dollars in the pockets of hard-working Marylanders than on the balance sheet of the Maryland Transportation Authority.”
The two Senate Committees called for Rahn and other transportation officials to answer questions last month, just two weeks after the Maryland Transportation Authority Board voted to approve reductions in tolls across the state, mostly for those who use the E-ZPass electronic toll payment system.
Of concern for legislators was how the authority will cover the reduction in tolls, estimated to be about $54 million annually, while maintaining existing facilities and planning for major replacement projects.
Rahn and Gartner said the authority will continue to work on early phases of the Nice Bridge project as expected, but noted that no construction funds are in the current six-year plan.
“So the conversation about whether we have the resources to construct the Nice Bridge is a very worthy topic of conversation and exploration, but there was nothing prior to these actions that was going to provide the resources to actually construct the bridge and none of the actions we’ve taken since changed that situation,” Rahn said.
The explanation drew criticism from some legislators, including Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery and vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Madaleno said the spending of money for planning and right-of-way acquisition shows the state always intended on building the replacement bridge.
“None of us live on a six-year plan,” Madaleno said. “The projects and facilities they are responsible for are century lasting projects. It’s one thing to talk about a six-year plan when it comes to guardrail repair, pothole repair and snow removal. when you’re talking about a new bridge over the Potomac River, you’re talking about building a 100-year project. That’s why the transportation authority tried to set a revenue structure that would allow for that sort of mega-project to be built in the future without an extreme toll increase.”