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Mixed reaction to bicyclists using Hatem Bridge

Hatem Bridge unveiled to cyclists

Rusty Geis thought letting bicyclists on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge was a "daggone stupid idea," but the Perryville man was nevertheless among the first to try pedaling across the Susquehanna River bridge Friday morning.

Bike riders were officially allowed on the Route 40 bridge Friday, as the Maryland Transportation Authority unveiled a flashing-light warning system to help cyclists merge onto the 1.3-mile overpass with no bike lane or shoulder. Police escorts will also be made available to groups of cyclists.

"Now you are going to tick off a lot of people that are rushing to get across the bridge [in cars]. In that respect, it's kind of crazy," Geis said as he prepared to ride his bike, for the first time in a year. "I am hoping this is used enough that it will promote it until money is a little less scarce to get a permanent [bike crossing]."

The East Coast Greenway Alliance, a major supporter of the bridge access, was on hand Friday morning to explain the new rules, support cyclists and promote general safety.

Bikes are allowed from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, and from dawn to dusk on weekends and state holidays. To get across, cyclists should push a button that turns on flashing lights to warn drivers a bike is on the bridge. Once on the Hatem, cyclists should stay in the right lane and ride in single file.

Eastbound riders must also pay the same $8 toll as drivers of two-axle vehicles. Bicyclists must be 18 or older, or have a valid driver's license.

Pro-bicycling groups like the Greenway Alliance called the setup less than ideal, but better than nothing. Andy Hamilton, the mid-Atlantic coordinator for the Alliance, said the Maryland Department of Transportation "has really done an exceptional job" with the signs and warning system.

"People want to see this happen, and we want to make sure it is done in the safest way," he said Friday from a tent that showcased the 2,900-mile Greenway bike trail planned from Maine to Florida.

The Alliance was handing out bike helmets on both sides of the river and offering to pay the toll for the first 50 cyclists. Hamilton was joined by Jon Korin, president of BikeAAA (Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis & Anne Arundel County), and Steve Miller, interim executive director of Bike Maryland.

"This was the largest gap on the East Coast, where you couldn't bicycle across," Hamilton said, noting the major trail will offer a unique route for local, national and international travelers.

An eclectic group of curious cyclists rode across the bridge into Harford County shortly after the 9 a.m. start time.

Despite getting a police escort, the group had mixed reactions about the experience. One person got a flat tire on the bridge. (The MDTA suggests staying in place and dialing #77 for help, if a bike breaks down.)

Chris Reno, of Charlestown in Cecil County, said he does not think he would ride again solo, although the trip might be safer for a group.

"I have been wanting to ride my bike across the bridge since I moved here three years ago," Reno said, but pointed out the bridge is narrow. "That thing is really dangerous."

Ed Lee, of Chesapeake City, was one of two people who rode penny-farthings, a historic bike with a large front wheel, across the bridge.

"It's historic, being the first person across," Lee said, but he would not do it again.

"Cars are not going to know that you are out there," Lee said. "You need a bike path ... I have ridden on Broad Street in New York City and felt safer."

Tim Schmidt, however, said he felt fine in the right lane, because "it's like you have a wide shoulder," and he would make the trip again.

Schmidt, a 15-year resident of North East, who teaches physical education at Perryville Middle School, once rode a penny-farthing from Lewes, Del., to Indiana.

After riding his penny-farthing into Harford County Friday, he called the Hatem Bridge much safer than crossing at the Conowingo Dam and said the new bike access is "really helpful."

"I think it's great that there is a way across, and the set-up hopefully will work," Schmidt said. "It's a beautiful view."

The Alliance is hoping for better bike and pedestrian access in the future, and Hamilton said the group has been talking with officials working on Amtrak's new Susquehanna River Rail Bridge project. Bicycling supporters hope to stay on the state's radar in the future, if the Hatem Bridge, which carried 9.9 million vehicles in fiscal year 2014, is ever upgraded or rebuilt.

The bike access marks a return to an era when transportation on the 76-year-old bridge meant more than cars, Hamilton said.

"Historically, there was a sidewalk on the bridge," he said. "When they put in the center [Jersey barrier] divider, they took out the sidewalk. What they are doing is just allowing a former user who couldn't use the bridge, to use the bridge."

For more information on Hatem Bridge bicycle access, go to www.mdta.maryland.gov/Toll_Facilities/Hatem_Bike_Access.html . The July 4 holiday weekend has special bike hours, with cyclists urged to only cross from dawn to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to dusk on Saturday, as well as from dawn to noon and from 6 p.m. to dusk on Sunday.

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