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Spans of the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge. (Flickr / Gary Hymes / CC-BY 2.0)

Md. Senate passes bill to require bridge spending, study

ANNAPOLIS — A package of three bills passed in the Senate Monday would require Gov. Larry Hogan to begin to fund phases of three transportation projects, including replacement for an aging southern Maryland bridge and an environmental study for a third span across the Chesapeake Bay.

The bills are a response by legislators who are concerned that toll decreases championed and enacted by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan would delay or cancel the replacement of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge or other major projects.

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Monday that he believes the state transportation authority can meet the requirements of the bills without toll increases but said he’d prefer to work with transportation officials on a plan.

“They don’t have to raise tolls, no, they don’t have to raise tolls,” Middleton said. “They can work with us to try and find funding.”

Included in the three-bill package:

  • A bill that requires the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $26 million — a reduction from $75 million called for in the legislation as introduced —  annually for the replacement of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge in Charles County. A safety valve allows the agency to put less in under emergency circumstances with the notification and approval of the legislature.
  • Legislation that requires the governor to begin setting aside money for the environmental study phase for a third span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The bill, unlike previous versions, limits the location of the crossing to a parallel path with the current bridges along Route 50 rather than also including proposals for a northern and southern bay crossing.
  • A measure requiring the State Highway Administration to fund a proposed I-270 interchange at Watkins Mill in Montgomery County. Lawmakers expressed concern when the project was not funded by the governor this year and called the interchange important to economic development in the area.

Middleton in particular has expressed concerns about how the reduction of tolls would affect the planned replacement of the Nice bridge, a 75-year old span that was built when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

“I don’t like doing this, I don’t like reaching in and telling the (transportation) authority what they have to do,” said Middleton. “I don’t like doing it but I’ve got a situation there something has to be invested.”

All three bills now move to the House of Delegates.

The passage of the three bills in the Senate were without debate or Republican opposition despite the three Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee voting against the Watkins Mill and Nice bridge bills.

“I think what you’re seeing from this administration is they are looking at ways of reducing construction costs on these projects and that’s something that we haven’t seen before,” said Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., Upper Shore and member of the Senate Finance Committee. “They’re looking at the details of the projects and the overpasses and they’re finding that they can have some significant savings.”

Senate approval also comes two days after the House of Delegates passed a bill that would require a grading and ranking of each transportation project by the state Department of Transportation as it plans which it intended to fund each year. Democratic lawmakers and transportation advocates angered over the elimination of the Red Line project in Baltimore and other proposals say such legislation is long overdue and will provide transparency.

Hogan and transportation officials say the so-called “transportation transparency” bill is a power grab and that Democrats are only seeking the change now that a Republican holds the governor’s office.

“For eight years, the majority leadership of the General Assembly remained vastly silent as our roads and bridges crumbled and funding for local transportation projects dwindled,” said Douglass Mayer in a statement.

Mayer said the bill, if it became law, “would recommend a return to those failed policies and ultimately undermine the ability of county executives and local authorities to determine their own transportation priorities.”

“Governor Hogan’s six-year transportation plan is incredibly balanced – addressing critical transportation projects in every jurisdiction while also boosting funding for local roads by more $230 million,” Mayer said. “This bill represents a radical change from that approach and would create an incredibly unbalanced plan based on a formula developed behind closed doors and without real public input.”