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Hogan administration says Nice Bridge will last another 30 years. It might have to.

This bill would force replacement of a 76-year-old bridge. The Hogan administration says that's unnecessary.

The only practical connection between Southern Maryland and Virginia is a steep 76-year-old toll bridge with two narrow lanes, no shoulder, no sidewalk and no barrier in the median.

According to the Hogan administration, that's good enough for at least another 30 years.

Local residents disagree, but the administration's generally popular decision to cut tolls last year has contributed to the state having little money for projects like replacing the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge.

A bill with powerful support in the General Assembly would force its construction anyway.

"The bridge is a disaster waiting to happen," Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson told a Senate committee last week. "Something as simple as a flat tire ties up traffic for hours."

The Nice Bridge replacement is one of two huge transportation projects shelved by Hogan during his first year in office. The other, the $2.9 billion Red Line in Baltimore, was scuttled as part of a shift of priorities from transit to highway projects.

The shared experience of losing long-anticipated projects has forged a bond of sorts between Baltimore and Charles County lawmakers, all of whom are Democrats. Though many Baltimoreans have never heard of the Nice Bridge and will never cross it, the entire city Senate delegation has signed on to co-sponsor Charles County Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton's bill, which would require the state to set aside $75 million a year for a replacement bridge that would open by 2030.

The Hogan administration says that's unnecessary.

Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told The Baltimore Sun that the existing bridge is sound enough to serve travelers until it is more than 100 years old, reversing the Maryland Transportation Authority's position under Gov. Martin O'Malley. Under the Democratic governor, Maryland had set aside more than $50 million for design and engineering of a new, wider bridge with the expectation that construction would begin soon after 2020.

Rahn said the old span doesn't carry enough traffic —18,000 vehicles a day — to justify its replacement with a four-lane crossing. He also said the bill would violate the trust agreement between the authority and its bondholders by diverting money from maintaining and operating existing facilities. That, he said, could expose the state to a lawsuit.

Hogan campaigned in 2014 as an opponent of O'Malley's toll increases, which Charles County officials said were used to pay for projects elsewhere in the state while the Nice Bridge aged. Documents show that within a half-hour of Hogan's inauguration, the transportation authority set in motion a plan to roll back toll increases.

Rahn said the $54 million in lost toll revenue wouldn't have been enough to build a new bridge anyway. The governor's office said the money previously allocated is still in the budget and that design work is continuing even though there are no construction plans.

Middleton's bill seeks to change that. He has the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. Baltimore lawmakers say their respect for Middleton — who is chairman of the Finance Committee — coupled with disappointment over the Red Line and knowledge of the Nice Bridge's condition was enough to earn their support.

Others say the legislation is an overreach.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican who served as transportation secretary from 2003 to 2007, said the bill intrudes on the transportation authority's independence.

"This is unprecedented for there to be legislation dictating that the toll authority should build a bridge," he said. "It's never been done. It's never been dreamed of."

Meanwhile, Hogan administration officials said, the bridge isn't in nearly as bad shape as its critics say. Rahn and his aides testified that it is structurally sound and is no more prone to accidents than any other toll facility in the authority's system.

If the legislature wants a new bridge built, Rahn said, it will have to come up with the money.

A glance at a map of Maryland helps explain why the Nice Bridge generates such passion in Charles and nearby counties.

The 1.7-mile span takes U.S. 301 across the Potomac River between Maryland and King George County, Va. It is the only crossing of the Potomac south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge — nearly an hour's drive away even if traffic is light on the roads leading to the Capital Beltway.

Traveling from La Plata to the Naval Surface Warfare Center just across the river in Dahlgren, Va., where many Marylanders work, is about a 23-minute trip via the Nice Bridge. Without it, the same trip would take an extra two hours.

Immediately after the toll decrease was announced last year, the Hogan administration played down the impact on the bridge project.

When Rahn appeared before the Senate Finance Committee last June to explain the toll cuts, he mentioned nothing about the bridge lasting another 30 years. He said that planning and design would continue but that the authority would try to reduce the price tag.

"I don't believe it has to cost $1 billion," he said. "We will come up with a more economical design for the project."

But Rahn said he now doesn't see that as necessary.

"The bridge is in better condition than was thought," he said.

Hogan's toll reduction saved money for many Marylanders, especially E-ZPass customers who regularly use the Baltimore Harbor crossings, the John F. Kennedy Highway and the Bay Bridge. E-ZPass users of the Nice Bridge received a 90-cent break — a trip southbound, where the only toll is collected, now costs $4.50.

Rahn acknowledged that users of the bridge are unhappy with its condition and said the administration is open to replacement if lawmakers can come up with the money, but he ruled out higher tolls. The governor is on record opposing tax increases, leaving few other options.

Instead of a replacement, officials said last week, they are considering spending $150 million to $200 million to replace the bridge's deck instead.

Rahn's deputy, James F. Ports, told the Senate committee that while the bridge is "obsolete," it is "fully functional."

"It is not unsafe. We would never, ever allow people to cross an unsafe bridge," Ports said.

Middleton and the House sponsor of the legislation, Del. Sally Jameson, say redecking the old bridge would be a waste of money and would involve unacceptable lane closings. Their bill would bar the state from spending money for that purpose.

Middleton questioned the wisdom of pouring money into keeping an aging bridge structurally sound when that money could instead be put toward a new one.

"Sure, it would last 30 years," he said, "but at what cost?"

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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