NEWBURG — The Maryland Transportation Authority has approved a $765 million plan to replace the 75-year old Gov. Harry Nice Bridge.
Construction of the new, four-lane bridge that would span the Potomac and connect Charles County with Virginia could begin by 2020 and be completed by 2023.
“From day one, we been 100 percent committed to replacing the Nice Bridge,” said Gov. Larry Hogan following the vote. “We have always been and are fully committed to completing this project in the most affordable, most efficient and most expeditious manner possible.”
The vote and announcement met with the approval of Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County and chair of the Finance Committee. Middleton sponsored a bill earlier this year requiring the state to set aside millions each year to fund a replacement of the bridge after he and other legislators became concerned about its future. Hogan vetoed that legislation and the General Assembly could take up a veto override when they reconvene in January.
“I am very, very pleased,” said Middleton after the vote. “I would say (the vote) has met my hopes in that what they have done, they are going to keep this project moving forward.”
The project currently includes a bike lane accounting for about $100 million in costs. Cyclists would likely pay a toll to use the pedestrian-bike lane.
MDTA officials said design changes, including lowering and re-aligning the bridge, are expected to save $200 million off the original estimated cost that approached $1 billion.
Most of the existing bridge would be demolished, though transportation officials said some of the decking of the original bridge could be used for part of the bike and pedestrian crossing and some of the pilings could be used to protect the new structure. Those steps would reduce the project’s cost.
The state has already spent and committed a combined $65 million on the project. Additionally, it has made three offers to purchase right-of-ways on three properties to allow the proposed bridge to be re-aligned to a site just north of the existing crossing.
Will Pines, director of project development for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said ongoing maintenance of the bridge, combined with expected costs that could top $150 million for future upkeep, reduced costs of the project. The strong financial status of the transportation authority also helped make replacing the bridge an easier proposition.
“With the efforts taken, we’re in a strong position to move forward,” Pines told the authority board. “If we didn’t move forward, we would essentially be shelving the project.”
Pines said other projects planned for the future, such as a possible third span across the Chesapeake Bay, would limit the ability to replace the bridge if the Nice Bridge project wasn’t started soon.
The proposed new alignment would likely mean it would have to cross through an existing park on the Virginia side of the Potomac. State transportation officials said they are working with Virginia to secure the parcels needed.
“There are problems with us owning land in other states,” Pines said.
The fate of the span, which was built when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, has been the subject of contention between Hogan and legislators since 2015, when the governor announced a plan to reduce tolls at facilities across the state.
Lawmakers feared that the replacement of the two-lane crossing, which is estimated to cost at least $1 billion, would be mothballed due to the decrease in available transportation funds.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly attempted to ensure that the replacement would be built by passing Senate Bill 907. The bill required the authority to set aside annually $26 million — a reduction from $75 million called for in the legislation as introduced — for the replacement of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge in Charles County. A safety valve provision in the bill would allow the agency to put less in under emergency circumstances with the notification and approval of the legislature.
Hogan called the legislation “a terrible, misguided transportation bill which threatened our priority efforts here to replace the Harry Nice bridge.”
Legislative staff said the bill was needed after the administration removed funding from last year’s budget plan.
Middleton, speaking after the transportation authority board’s vote Monday, said he will wait for a full review of the bridge plan by the Department of Legislative Services. But he said it’s likely he will no longer seek an override of Hogan’s veto.