The demolition of the historic Harry W. Nice Bridge may proceed as planned, a federal judge ruled this week, dashing the hopes of advocacy groups who wanted to save the structure for use as a bicycle and pedestrian path across the Potomac River.
U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman rejected a last-ditch effort to save the bridge in a 43-page opinion issued late Tuesday. She found that the plaintiffs, a group of trail associations that would have benefitted from a path for bicyclists and pedestrians, waited too long to seek court intervention to prevent the scheduled demolition.
Boardman also concluded that granting an injunction would only delay the bridge’s demolition.
“Even if the Court were to enjoin the demolition of the bridge to allow the defendants time to cure any alleged procedural deficiencies, the curative measures very likely would not result in the repurposing of the old bridge into one dedicated solely to cyclists and pedestrians, which is the ultimate relief the plaintiffs seek,” the judge wrote.
“Numerous state and local entities have explored options for retaining the old bridge and concluded that there are no feasible means to do so.”
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.
The new bridge will allow bicyclists to share a lane with vehicles but will not allow pedestrian access.
The Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association, the Potomac Heritage Trail Association, and Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club filed a lawsuit over the change late last month and argued that saving the 80-year-old Nice Bridge for pedestrian and bicycle use would remedy the issue.
Boardman disagreed, finding that state and federal agencies took the appropriate steps to get approval for the change to the new bridge. Restoring the old bridge would also be extremely expensive, and no local governments were willing to take on the cost.
“In any event, the Historic Nice Bridge never provided access for cyclists or pedestrians across the Potomac,” Boardman wrote. “The new bridge will provide greater access for cyclists than they previously had.”
Boardman also found that keeping the Nice Bridge in place might pose a risk to the new bridge because of the erosion that the old bridge’s foundations could cause.
In an emailed statement, the Maryland Transportation Authority thanked Boardman for the decision.
“We appreciate the court’s ruling today recognizing the facts of this case and denying the request for a temporary restraining order for the demolition of the existing Nice/Middleton Bridge,” the agency said.
David Brickley, the president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association, said he was disappointed in the decision and in Maryland officials’ choice not to include the pedestrian and bicycle path on the new bridge. Allowing bicyclists to share a lane with the large vehicles that will pass over the bridge is not an appropriate alternative, he said.
“This is completely unsafe, but even worse than that, it’s a lack of vision on the part of Maryland for multimodal transportation in the future,” he said. “This was a real opportunity and they blew it.”
Thomas K. Prevas, of Saul Ewing LLP, represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. In a statement Wednesday, he said he typically instructs developers to “get out in front of issues and communicate early and often with governmental authorities and the public about the full scope and impact of a project, to avoid last minute controversies and legal challenges like this one.”
“When the government is the developer, it should do at least as much as it regularly expects of the private sector, and I do not believe that happened here,” he said.
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.