Cyclists cross Susquehanna, close gap in 2,900-mile East Coast Greenway

Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge opens to bicycle traffic.

When Dan Rappoport took a bicycle trip from New Jersey to central Virginia a couple of years ago, he was surprised — and annoyed — to find that when he reached the Susquehanna River in Maryland, he had to stop, dismount and have his bike shuttled across by car.

He had reached the U.S. 40 Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, infamous among cyclists as the only stretch of a 2,900-mile trail from Maine to Florida that's closed to bicycle traffic.

But on Friday morning, Rappoport, 66, became one of the first five cyclists to cross the 7,600-foot steel-truss span. The state of Maryland opened the bridge to bicyclists for the first time at 9 a.m.

At 9:13, he leaned on his cycle bike and smiled.

"It feels really great," he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. "This was the perfect time to do it. It gives you a real sense of freedom for starting Independence Day weekend."

The Hatem Bridge, named for a longtime Harford County politician, connects Havre de Grace on the western bank of the Susquehanna to Perryville on the eastern bank.

Bicycle access to the span has been a point of contention and debate for more than 15 years.

Local and national cycling groups, including nonprofits such as Bike Maryland and Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, have pressed to close the bike trail's final gap.

The state resisted, citing safety concerns, including the bridge's configuration — it's four lanes wide, two in each direction, with no shoulders — and a traffic volume of 9.9 million vehicles per year, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The modest bridge has become a focal point in a larger national movement: the effort by cycling and clean-transportation advocates to establish networks of interconnected trails, a process that tends to unfold in fits and starts as planners address local political obstacles one by one to link one established throughway to another.

The East Coast Greenway has been moving its way south from Calais, Maine, and north from Key West, Fla., since 1991. It has incorporated the Sept. 11 National Trail, a system of trails and roads that connects 9/11 memorials in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pa. But it hit a seemingly intractable snag at the Susquehanna.

Bicyclists' options for crossing the river have been few and unsatisfying. One was to travel 13 miles north to the Conowingo Dam and cross U.S. 1 via a narrow span that even expert cyclists consider dangerous. Another was to shuttle across the Hatem Bridge by bus or taxi.

Bike advocates acknowledge that another option — building a new bridge for the purpose — would have been far too expensive.

It wasn't until this year that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn announced a compromise, making the Hatem the first toll bridge or tunnel in the state to permit bikes.

"It was wonderful to encounter an open-minded [transportation] secretary who would give our proposals a good hearing," said Eric Brenner, chairman of the Maryland Bicyclist-Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

The panel, composed of representatives from several state agencies as well as private citizens, spent years working with the Maryland Department of Transportation, the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Transportation Administration, the East Coast Greenway and other groups to develop proposals that would enable the region to reap the transportation, leisure and economic benefits of a bike connection — distance bicyclists spend an average of $105 per day, Brenner said — while minimizing the dangers.

Brenner said Rahn approved every recommendation but one: a plan that would have narrowed traffic lanes on the bridge to make room for a bike lane.

Friday found pioneers like Rappoport following an elaborate regimen, some of it required by law.

Cyclists must push a button at the entrance that activates two flashing yellow lights on a pole. The lights are meant as a warning to drivers that bicyclists are on the bridge. They're designed to flash for 15 minutes, enough time for even the slowest rider to cross.

Riders traveling east from Harford to Cecil County must pay the $8 toll charged to all two-axle vehicles. Riders may use E-ZPass for discounts.

The Maryland Transportation Authority and Bike Maryland have posted rules and recommendations on their websites.

The transportation authority says bicyclists must stay in the center of the right-hand lane as they cross, and motorists should move to the left-hand lane as long as the yellow warning lights are flashing.

Trucks heavier than 5 tons, which are normally required to cross the bridge in the right lane, can pass cyclists via the left lane, according to the transportation authority.

Cyclists may cross only during certain hours.

Hours will be limited this weekend because of the Independence Day holiday, according to John Sales, a spokesperson for the transportation authority.

The bridge was open to cyclists from 9 a.m. to noon Friday. It will be open to cyclists from dawn to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to dusk on Saturday, from dawn to noon and from 6 p.m. to dusk Sunday, and from dawn to dusk Monday, Sales said.

The bridge will otherwise be open to cyclists from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and from dawn until dusk on weekends and holidays. Riders must be 18 and older. They should ride single-file and cannot stop while on the bridge.

The bridge will remain off-limits to pedestrians.

A cluster of bicycling boosters gathered at the west entrance to the bridge before the Friday morning opening and set up a publicity tent.

Andy Hamilton, Mid-Atlantic coordinator for East Coast Greenway, had driven down from his home in Pennsylvania.

He spoke with cyclists, handed out informational fliers and announced that his group was giving out free helmets at each end of the bridge — and paying the $8 toll for the first riders to make the eastward crossing.

Friday, he said, was not about throwing a gala.

"We aren't going for numbers [of cyclists] today," he said. "It's more important for us to educate people on the safest way to do this."

Though some still question the safety of the crossing, Hamilton said it's still safer than the Conowingo span, and until cycling advocates achieve their ultimate dream — having a dedicated bike trail added when Amtrak follows through on plans to renovate a nearby railroad bridge — it's an excellent option.

Bike Maryland President Steve Miller couldn't stop smiling.

Miller lauded the way state agencies worked together to open the bridge on Friday, and as he watched the vehicle traffic rush by about 9 a.m., he extolled the safety precautions the state and advocates had developed together.

He suggests that riders come equipped with smartphones, as the transportation authority will use its Twitter account to issue updates on traffic and weather conditions, and suspend biking hours if the weather warrants.

When winds exceed 30 mph or visibility is less than 1,000 feet, the agency would close the bridge to bikers, he said.

Riders in distress on the bridge should enter #77 on their phones, Miller said. The call will go through to the transportation authority, which has a police detachment on the bridge.

For the most part, Friday's riders bore out Miller's faith in the bridge's safety. By 10:30 a.m., cyclists had made about 30 trips across, and the worst problem occurred when Rustamon "Rusty" Geis of Perryville — a member of Rappoport's group — blew a tire when he hit an expansion joint.

"It knocked the water bottle right off my bike," said Geis, 66, as he made repairs in the shade of a tree. "I don't know how long this will be open, because I don't think it's especially safe."

Brenner said his group had considered trying to have the joints covered, an expensive proposition, but decided to settle on warning cyclists — particularly those like Geis who use narrow tires.

The rest of the riders — particularly those in Rappoport's group, which received a police escort — seemed to be enjoying themselves on the sunny morning.

Ed Lee, Tim Schmidt and Chris Reno, all of Cecil County, also joined him on the trek.

Reno was equipped like a typical distance rider, but Lee and Schmidt, members of an antique bicycle club, donned red, white and blue and rode the high-wheeled 19th-century contraptions the English call "penny-farthings."

Lee, decked in knickers and authentic 19th-century lace-up boots, was all smiles after completing the crossing.

He put his hands on his handlebars as traffic rushed by.

"Nobody has ever crossed this bridge on a bike before" he said. "It's nice to be part of history."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter David Anderson contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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