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Groups seek to halt Nice Bridge demolition, preserve bike/pedestrian path

The Gov. Harry Nice Bridge connects Calvert County to Virginia. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

A new federal lawsuit asks a judge to halt the imminent demolition of the historic Harry W. Nice Bridge because its replacement lacks a bicycle and pedestrian path that state officials originally pledged to include.

The suit claims the Maryland Transportation Authority conducted a bait and switch: promising at first to include a shielded bicycle and pedestrian path on the new bridge, but then building the replacement without the path and without conducting appropriate environmental impact studies on the alternative plan.

The plaintiffs are the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association, the Potomac Heritage Trail Association and Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club, all of which would benefit from a bicycle and pedestrian path spanning the Potomac River.

They propose keeping the historic Nice Bridge intact so that it can be used by pedestrians and bicyclists.

“In this age it is inconceivable that a major new bridge traversing two states crossing the Potomac River would not have bicycle and pedestrian facilities, especially since the bridge will be used for a century,” said David Brickley, the president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association.

“That lack of foresight can be solved by converting the Historic Nice Bridge into a world-class walking and bicycling attraction.”

The replacement for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge was originally supposed to include a 10-foot, two-way bicycle lane that would be shielded from traffic by a fence. But in 2019, the Maryland Transportation Authority pulled the separated path from the new bridge plan.

MDTA suggested that bicyclists could share the bridge with drivers, an alternative that the plaintiffs say is unsafe. The new bridge would not allow for pedestrians, the plaintiffs said in a news release.

“Defendants never built the bridge they approved or reviewed in 2012; they built something else,” wrote the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Thomas K. Prevas and Anamika R. Moore of Saul Ewing LLP.

“The new bridge provides no safe passage for bikes and pedestrians, and the last remaining recourse for the government to make good on its promise to the community and maintain the public’s trust is to retain the Historic Nice Bridge for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.”

The lawsuit also raises questions about the demolition of the bridge, which may involve the use of explosives. Rubble from the bridge will be used to create an artificial reef, though the plaintiffs said in court papers that the plan “has not been evaluated appropriately for the impact on the natural habitat and human environment, including the taking of endangered species or disruption of their habitats.”

The existing two-lane bridge spans 1.7 miles and connects Newburg, in Charles County, with Dahlgren, Virginia. The historic bridge opened in 1940 and is the only known example of a steel cantilever bridge in Maryland.

The Maryland Transportation Administration said it had not been served with the lawsuit when asked for comment. The Federal Highway Administration, which is a defendant along with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order and an injunction to block the demolition of the bridge. A hearing on the request has not been scheduled.