By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Maryland transportation officials are focusing on six options for upgrading the overburdened Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, but the choices would require taking land from a Navy facility or a public park in Virginia.
The proposals would expand the bridge, which carries Route 301 over the Potomac River and connects Charles County to King George County in Virginia, from two lanes to four. About 6.5 million vehicles crossed the bridge in 2005, a number that transportation officials expect will rise as much as 25 percent by 2025 as the populations on both sides of the structure increase dramatically.
Charles and King George are among the fastest-growing counties in their states, and many of the 8,000 employees at the Dahlgren Naval Support Facility in King George commute from Charles across the bridge.
The bridge, which has a 50 mph speed limit, has no divider between its two lanes of traffic, and that is a safety concern for many transportation officials. The rate of truck crashes on the bridge is nearly twice as high as the statewide rate, officials say.
"We know that the population is growing far too big for the current bridge to handle, so we need to either close the bridge or expand its capacity," said Kelly McCleary, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The bridge opened in 1940 and was last renovated in 1985. Last year, the Charles commissioners and the King George supervisors signed a joint resolution prioritizing its expansion.
Maryland owns the Potomac River up to the Virginia shore and, therefore, has jurisdiction over the bridge. Transportation officials will spend the next several months analyzing the environmental impact of the options under consideration, with a decision scheduled by next fall.
Three of the possibilities involve constructing a span on the north side of the existing bridge. Such a structure would come ashore in Virginia on land occupied by a county park.
The other three options involve a new span on the south side of the current bridge. That would mean landing in Virginia on property occupied by the Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center. Representatives for Dahlgren and King George said that they are working closely with Maryland transportation officials but that they are worried about potential fiscal, security and environmental issues.
"Obviously, there would need to be adjustments to infrastructure at the base here," said Gary Wagner, a Navy spokesman. "And that's something we just don't have the funds for."
Furthermore, Wagner said, the project could create a safety hazard if the route veered onto test fields where unexploded ordnance remains. "To initiate a construction project of this magnitude would call for extensive surveying," he said.
The north side expansion options would interfere with access to King George's only public waterfront land, administrators there said. Wayside Park, a 10-acre grassy area along the Potomac, draws huge crowds on sunny weekends, said Tim Smith, the county's parks and recreation director.
Smith said his office has not received much information on possible effects on the park, adding that he hopes to be more involved in the process as it moves forward.
"The big question is how are we going to be compensated," Smith said. "That doesn't necessarily mean monetarily, but there would have to be some kind of trade-off."
Maryland's McCleary said transportation officials are committed to finding a solution that is acceptable to all parties, although she acknowledged that either the park or the Navy is likely to lose some of its land.
"We definitely have to look at how this would affect the surrounding communities, businesses and natural surroundings," she said "We're in the very, very early phases."