For years, bicyclists hoped the new bridge over the Potomac River between King George County and Maryland would have a separate lane for bikers and walkers.
That hope was dashed in mid-November when the Maryland Transportation Authority nixed the proposal, saying the separate path would cost a lot of money—$64 million—for an average of 46 bicyclists and pedestrians daily.
While diehard bicyclists are disappointed, one man is proposing an alternative. David Brickley, president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Association, is asking the governors of Maryland and Virginia to work together to keep the existing bridge for bikers and pedestrians.
Such an agreement “would be a model for our nation and would serve to provide the economic, health and tourism benefits for our citizens,” Brickley wrote last week to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. “Please consider this option before it is forever closed.”
Plans call for the existing 1.9-mile bridge over the Potomac to be demolished after the new Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge opens in 2023 with four lanes for traffic and 2-foot wide shoulders for emergency vehicles. The estimated cost is $463 million, and the new bridge is expected to last for 100 years.
Materials from the existing bridge, which serves about 18,000 vehicles a day, would be used to create an artificial fish reef. Maryland and its contractor also plan to partner with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and Maryland Department of Natural Resources to fund oyster seeding in the lower Potomac River basin, according to MDTA’s website.
Brickley, a former Virginia delegate and director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, hopes the two states can work together to preserve the old bridge for use by bikers and walkers. He mentioned in his letter that MDOT offered a Maryland locality $17 million to retain the bridge for that purpose, but no local government “has the wherewithal or expertise to accept that responsibility,” Brickley said.
Brickley hopes a partnership between the states could provide that solution, given that the bridge is the gateway for the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and popular cycling and walking venues in both states. He believes that a new bridge, without a separate path for bicyclists and pedestrians, lacks vision.
His proposal comes in the wake of bitter disappointment by those who hoped the new bridge would have room for bicycles. When that option was scrapped in November, MDTA Acting Chairman Gregory Slater stressed that the new bridge would include construction elements, such as joints that wouldn’t be bumpy for bicycles and signals notifying drivers that riders are on the bridge.
Those measures would support “lane sharing so bicyclists could safely use the new bridge,” he wrote in a letter last month.
“Shared lanes? MDTA has got to be kidding,” King George resident Dave Jones said in response. “From day one, the Nice/Middleton bridge will be deadly for touring bicyclists ... indeed for all bicyclists. I know the risks of riding a loaded touring bicycle up a mile-long hill with cars and trucks approaching the rear of my bike at 10 times my speed.”
Jones is an avid cyclist and president of the Friends of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail, a 15.7-mile former railroad bed that runs from the backside of the King George Regional Landfill to the front of the Navy base in Dahlgren. For more than a decade, the Friends group has maintained the private trail and worked to connect it with other walking and cycling trails throughout the region and Eastern seaboard.
Friends members also spoke at “countless meetings and hearings and planning sessions” about the need for a separate bike path, Jones said.
“We were always told that the path would be included ‘if the bids came in under budget,’ ” said Jim Lynch, another King George resident and outdoorsman.
When Hogan announced the bridge project in 2016, he cited a cost of $765 million and plans for a lane, separated by a barrier, for bikes and pedestrians, according to the MDTA. Even with the additional $64 million for the bike path, the project fell well under the original estimate, Lynch pointed out in an email.
“The only conclusions I can draw are that MDTA was going to pick the lowest cost option, regardless,” Lynch said.
William Glover of White Stone in Lancaster County corresponded with Slater about Maryland’s decision to scratch the separate bike lane. Glover suggested members of the transportation authority join bicyclists for a ride across the new bridge, “along with the 18,000 vehicles.”
“Do not be concerned,” Glover wrote. “We will supply you with a helmet and a blinking taillight. You’ll be fine.”
Slater explained that MDTA had to pursue the most impactful projects with available funds, and that’s why it chose to allocate $58 million to widen 5.4 miles of southbound Interstate 95 in Harford County. A stretch of I–95 between the Maryland House Travel Plaza and Maryland Route 24 goes from four lanes to three lanes, then back to four, resulting in one of the state’s top 10 weekend bottlenecks, Slater said.