A federal judge in New York has accused Maryland Transportation Secretary Lowell K. Bridwell of concealing and distorting pertinent information in order to assure federal funding of Westway, a controversial multibillion-dollar road project in Manhattan.
Bridwell conceded yesterday that he had withheld information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but that he had written a letter to the corps explaining that he had been ordered by the chief attorney at the New York Department of Transportation to delay releasing information that could be used by opponents in court.
He said he promised in the letter to release the information at a later date, which, he says, he did. The data consisted of numbers, types and locations of fish in the Hudson River.
Bridwell denied any wrongdoing. "There was no collusion, no covering up," he said yesterday.
Bridwell, who has been on the job here less than a year and is considered part of Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes' inner circle, was president of a consulting firm hired by New York state in 1972 to manage the Westway project. According to several estimates, Bridwell's old consulting firm, Systems Design Concept Inc., has received or billed $8 million for its work on Westway so far. Bridwell left the firm last October to join the Hughes administration.
U.S. Judge Thomas P. Griesa blocked all federal funds for Westway last week and charged that during court testimony Bridwell and several other witnesses had withheld data about fish life in an area of the Hudson scheduled to be a landfill in the project.
Griesa said that federal and state agencies and private consultants, such as Bridwell, had purposely concealed information in a 1980 study that would have shown that the proposed landfill area was a prime habitat for striped bass.
Bridwell and officials from federal agencies had argued that the 1980 study corroborated an earlier environmental-impact statement, completed in 1977, which called the landfill area "a biological wasteland" that was not a habitat for marine life.
The latest uproar over Westway, a 4.2-mile stretch of highway designed to extend from the Battery to 42nd Street and replace a section of the existing West Side Highway, resulted after environmental groups questioned the 1980 study's claim that the landfill area was bereft of striped bass.
The judge's ruling last week supported that challenge.
The Westway project, which would cost an estimated $2 billion to $4 billion, is expected to create numerous jobs in New York and has the unwavering support of many politicians seeking reelection this year. Environmentalists oppose it, saying the money could be better spent on public transportation systems.
Bridwell, who was federal highway administrator between 1967 and 1969, was a key ingredient in Gov. Hughes' successes in the legislative session last winter. His role, according to State House sources, was crucial to passage of a controversial gasoline tax and to the governor's lobbying efforts on its behalf.
Bridwell said he has not spoken to Hughes about the matter. "There is no reason to involve the governor," he said. "This is a New York case."
Hughes said yesterday, "I know nothing about the Westway case." He added that he has known Bridwell for many years and has "always known him to be trustworthy and of the highest integrity."