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Bike groups sue over demolition of Maryland bridge they want for trail

A lawsuit alleges changes to the design of a Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland violated environmental review laws

Construction on the new Nice/Middleton Bridge across the Potomac River near Newburg, Md., looking east. (Maryland Transportation Authority)

Three bike trail advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to stop Maryland transportation officials from demolishing a bridge across the Potomac River they say could form a key link in cycling routes through the southern part of the state.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages the state’s toll roads, is in the final stages of replacing the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge about 40 miles south of downtown Washington with a separate wider, more modern crossing. Initial plans for the new bridge included a bike and pedestrian path, but state officials eliminated that element of the design in 2019.

The lawsuit alleges the late change to the plan — along with a proposal to demolish the old bridge using explosives — is a violation of state and federal environmental review laws. The bike groups are asking a judge in a U.S. district court in Greenbelt to block the demolition so officials can assess the suitability of the old bridge for use in an envisioned network of trails spanning Maryland and Virginia.

“In this age, it is inconceivable that a major new bridge traversing two states crossing the Potomac River would not have bicycle and pedestrian facilities; especially since the bridge will be used for a century,” David Brickley, president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association, said in a statement. “That lack of foresight can be solved by converting the Historic Nice Bridge into a world-class walking and bicycling attraction.”

The idea of preserving the bridge has the support of federal lawmakers and both major-party candidates for Maryland governor. State transportation officials have said they explored the idea of keeping the 82-year-old bridge, but found no one willing to bear the cost of maintenance. The new bridge will be accessible to bikes and have warning signs for drivers, but cycling advocates contend it will be too unsafe to cross.

The 1.7-mile crossing connects Maryland’s Charles County with King George County in Virginia. It carries almost 7 million vehicles each year.

Bike advocates, lawmakers want to save Potomac bridge as demolition begins

The lawsuit names as defendants the transportation authority, the Maryland Transportation Department and the U.S. Transportation Department, which provided a construction loan and issued environmental approvals for the bridge.

The Maryland Transportation Authority said it had not yet been served with the suit and couldn’t comment. Federal officials declined to comment on pending litigation.

While environmental lawsuits challenging transportation projects are typically filed before construction begins, it is not a requirement. Eric Brenner, a former chair of Maryland’s bike and pedestrian advisory committee, said advocates expected that state officials would agree to preserve the old bridge, and described their legal challenge as a “last resort.”

“There was an easier alternative, which was don’t demolish the bridge,” Brenner said.

The initial proposal for the new bridge would have created four lanes for cars and trucks, with a separated bike and pedestrian path. That plan was studied as part of an environmental review that concluded in 2012, according to the lawsuit. But in 2019 the transportation authority dropped the path as a cost-saving measure — a late change the lawsuit alleges was an illegal “bait and switch.”

“Studying and selecting one configuration yet building another violates the Environmental Review Laws, as well as the public trust,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would prohibit the state from demolishing the bridge and block the federal government from providing funding for demolition until new environmental reviews are finished. In a memo asking the judge to issue the injunction while the case is pending, trail advocates argue the new bridge could still open, even if the old one is left standing.

“Delaying demolition of the Historic Nice Bridge will avoid adverse environmental and human consequences that have not been considered adequately,” they wrote.

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