Even as the people of Hyattsville are trying to restore the look of the early 20th century to their town, the controversies of the past are reborn. The state has offered to replace the crumbling Alternate Rte. 1 bridge, but some local officials think it is the wrong project at the wrong time, just as some thought the original bridge was in 1929.
The issue 54 years ago was that the bridge divided the town, isolating an area that ended up as a warehouse district.
The merchants of 1983 also are concerned about their area becoming a warehouse district.
Other local officials say there is another issue--that the state may be passing up an opportunity to eliminate dangerous grade crossings nearby by building an underpass instead.
Those who would be affected the most by the new bridge are business owners who would have to be relocated.
"I'm pretty mad about the whole thing," said Lothar Steschner, who has managed a Texaco station for 13 years and just bought the property last year. "I had lots of plans. I was going to offer Maryland inspection service and build a food store. Now that's all down the drain."
The state will pay Steschner the amount he could have sold his property for plus relocation costs. But Steschner said he also should get a "good will" payment for his business.
"I have a very good business going, and I don't know what the next one will bring me," he said.
The bridge, which crosses the B&O Railroad tracks, has been patched many times. Crumbling rock and pebbles are scattered across the road. Holes in the sidewalk on the bridge are so deep you can see through them to the ground.
Every day about 14,600 cars and trucks use the bridge, which stretches 1,200 feet from Decatur Street to Rte. 1 in downtown Hyattsville.
The State Highway Administration estimated the project will begin as early as fall 1986 and will cost $6.6 million in 1983 dollars. Project Manager Frank De Santis said the state is allowing for inflation and expects federal funds along with revenue from the state gasoline-tax increase to pay for the bridge.
The proposal that the highway administration is recommending did not satisfy many of those attending a public hearing last Thursday night. State plans include placing the new bridge close to the same alignment but straightening the bridge's curve slightly to increase drivers' visibility.
But some think the state should have thought in broader terms, saying the project should be on a larger scale to eliminate greater dangers.
"Why spend $6.5 million to keep the problems we have now when we can take that money and maybe a little bit more and then do so much?" asked William F. Howes, vice president of Chessie System Railroads, which owns the B&O.
Howes said cited the most dangerous area, Melrose crossing at Crittenden Street, which handles 5,300 cars and 26 trains on an average day. The intersection has a history of accidents, including three since 1972, resulting in three injuries.
De Santis insisted the highway administration has considered eliminating the crossing but said the economic, social and environmental costs are too high. He said an underpass would have to be built, causing several streets to be closed during the construction, and at least a dozen businesses would have to be relocated.
The community had a chance to eliminate the Melrose crossing in 1976 when an approved bond issue provided funds for the project. The county would have paid 10 percent and the federal government 90 percent. But then-County Executive Lawrence Hogan, in an effort to cut the county budget, decided the project was too costly.
De Santis said traffic will continue to move during the two years of construction. Part of the bridge will be torn down to allow workers to begin building the new bridge. Drivers will use the remaining portion of the old bridge.
De Santis said the lanes will be narrower and that traffic may move more slowly. After workers finish building part of the new bridge, traffic will be shifted to that portion while they complete the unfinished portion.
Long-time merchants remember when Rte. 1 was flourishing with businesses. But when Prince George's Plaza shopping center opened in 1959, customers and businesses moved away.
Bruce Eberwein, president of a local merchants group, fears the new bridge will encourage truck traffic and will hurt small businesses.
De Santis said he doesn't think traffic will increase.