ANNAPOLIS -- In water-oriented Annapolis, where history is revered and state government endured, the summer's tidal wave of an issue is how to build a bridge.
At odds in this waterborne debate are millions in federal tax dollars vs. something considerably less quantifiable: a historic city's unique identity and charm.
Unless opponents succeed in halting the controversial project, the State Highway Administration intends to build a $40 million, two-lane high-rise span over the Severn River to replace the crumbling Route 450 drawbridge that serves as the city's eastern gateway.
Few could argue that a new bridge is not needed. The old one is 67 years old and is rated by the SHA as the worst in the state, yet remains one of the busiest.
It averages 21,000 vehicles per day, second among draw bridges only to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on Washington's beltway, and its draw span rises to accommodate boaters more than 9,000 times a year, officials estimate. Replacing it with a high-rise would speed traffic, both on the highway and the water.
But at the project's 11th hour -- after eight years of planning, the SHA advertises for bids tomorrow -- opponents have mounted a vigorous attack. They claim the bridge is a monster, too big for the location, and that its design is insensitive to the aesthetics of Maryland's colonial capital.
State officials counter that if they stop the project now, they will have to return the federal government's $32 million contribution and keep the old bridge working for at least another four years while they draft new plans.
"To put it simply, the State Highway Administration says this [design] is convenient," groused Tom Davies, an Annapolis architect and leading bridge opponent. "Well, convenience is the 7-Eleven on the corner. Convenience is the shopping mall. Historic Annapolis is not convenient. Convenience can't mean everything."
Built in 1924 to replace a wooden bridge, the 1,800-foot-long Severn River Bridge clearly deserves retirement. In 1979, the road surface cracked when four of the bridge's two dozen spans settled, and the bridge had to be closed for repairs.
Since then, the bridge's weight limit has been restricted to 12 tons and the deck is dotted with patches. On a scale of 100 in a "sufficiency" rating -- a measure of a bridge's condition against its traffic load -- the span scored a 4.
"It's perfectly safe for the posted weight, but if we don't replace it we might have to lower the weight further just to make sure it will last four more years," said Earle S. Freedman, the agency's deputy chief engineer for bridge development. "The only solution is to replace it."
But how best to do that is the sticking point. In the past several months, some residents have rallied to fight the state's plan.
Calling themselves Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge, the group's protests have been endorsed by a wide array of civic groups as well as Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and the Annapolis city council.
"There are thousands of people out there who don't want that bridge," said Maureen Lamb, an Anne Arundel County Council )) member who represents the Annapolis area. "People have just become so tired of the attitude of what government says is good for you. They don't want government telling us what to do."
Opposition to the high-rise span became active only in March, eight years after the initial public hearing on the bridge and more than a year after the winning design was chosen in a much-publicized international competition.
Residents say their slow reaction to the state's plans should not be held against them.
"The thing was so long delayed, no one thought about it and the design was only made public in May of last year. It took a while for people to become galvanized," said Stuart Morris of the Severn River Association, a coalition of more than 100 community groups.
The 2,800-foot-long bridge, as designed by Greiner Engineering
Inc. of Timonium, ascends 75 feet above the water, a towering height in contrast to the current 12 feet. By comparison, the new U.S. 50 Kent Narrows bridge provides 65 feet of clearance.
The simple, curving design won plaudits and a $25,000 cash prize from the 13-member panel, which selected it from 21 entries. The unusual competition was intended to produce an "award-winning design" for the unique and scenic location, Mr. Freedman said.
At 54 feet wide, the bridge would be large enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic, pedestrian sidewalks and a light-rail track if the Baltimore-based line is ever extended this far south.
The state's plan also calls for a portion of the old bridge to be kept as a fishing pier. The 300-foot pier would be located at the eastern side adjacent to the state-managed Jonas Green Park.
Opponents maintain the design is out of scale with a downtown where few buildings are more than four stories tall and will destroy a charming vista. They fear it would divert cars and trucks from the six-lane U.S. 50 bridge upriver and encourage more boats to travel up one of the state's most boat-congested rivers.
"Over the past three years, the environs of Annapolis have gone through a catastrophic growth spurt," said Joseph M. Coale, president of Historic Annapolis Foundation, a private, non-profit group that owns or manages numerous historic properties. "People have had enough."
While the current bridge is dilapidated, it's always been user-friendly, residents insist. Pedestrians, cyclists and runners from the adjacent U.S. Naval Academy use it frequently, as do crabbers and fishermen.
"This is a people bridge," said Thomas McCarthy Jr., an Annapolis attorney. "Let's face it, the SHA is predisposed to building highway bridges. They don't think in terms of people and recreation."
Nevertheless, the SHA remains unconvinced by those arguments. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall said recently he opposes any delay if it costs the state the $32 million in federal aid.
Mr. Freedman estimates a drawbridge would cost $50 million to $60 million. In addition, there would be no guarantee that the federal government would once again finance 80 percent of the bridge's construction, he said.
On Wednesday, members of the county's General Assembly delegation are scheduled to meet with top transportation officials to discuss the situation, but bridge opponents are not holding their breath.
Given the economic realities, politicians may simply find it too difficult to pass up so much federal aid.
"In all honesty, when we bring this subject up to legislators from outside our district, they look at us like we're nuts," said Delegate Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the county delegation. "There's a lot to be said for historic Annapolis and building a bridge to scale. There's also a lot to be said for efficient transportation."