Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced plans Monday to replace the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland — and to wage a political fight with the legislature over transportation policy.
The two-fold announcement at the base of the bridge launched a massive infrastructure project, and set the stage for a war of words when the Democratic-controlled General Assembly convenes in January.
The Nice Bridge carries U.S. 301 from Charles County over the Potomac River to Virginia. The steep, narrow, two-lane span is the only crossing of that river south of the Capital Beltway. It has no shoulder and lacks a median to separate opposing traffic.
Local officials say a flat tire can cause hours-long backups that stretch for miles. But the cost of replacing the 76-year-old steel bridge has been estimated at up to $1 billion.
Hogan announced plans Monday for a $765 million replacement that would open in 2023. Administration officials said the state could trim costs by building a bridge lower to the water over a deeper river channel about 100 feet north of the current span.
The replacement bridge would be funded in part with toll revenue, which the state's transportation secretary said is on the rise. Secretary Pete Rahn said last year's toll cuts prompted a traffic increase that generated $62 million more than the state expected.
All of that money would be spent on the bridge. Rahn said future projected toll windfalls would also be spent on the bridge.
"Marylanders deserve better than the daily congestion caused by the current bridge," Hogan said. "And with the construction of this new bridge, they will finally get it."
Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, pushed for the bridge's replacement for more than a decade. He welcomed Hogan's announcement.
"My hat's off to them," he said. "In my opinion, this is a win-win for the administration, for the transportation authority, and the citizens of Southern Maryland and the people who use the Harry Nice Bridge."
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said Hogan was wise to replace the bridge because Southern Maryland is a politically important region.
"It's also a good time to be investing in infrastructure, because interest rates are so incredibly low," Eberly said. "This is a bridge that has long since needed to be replaced."
Hogan's announcement followed approval by the Maryland Transportation Authority board. The authority oversees the bridge and other toll facilities in the state.
Before the announcement, Hogan accused the legislature of trying to thwart his ability to build the bridge.
He also vowed to repeal a separate transportation project scoring bill that he has already vetoed. He said the "disgraceful" legislation "threatens to kill most of the desperately needed transportation projects."
The legislature overrode Hogan's veto. Legislative analysts disagree about the bill's effect.
Lawmakers had their own plan for replacing the Nice Bridge. They approved legislation this year requiring the state to set aside $26 million annually for a span that would open by 2030. They feared that Hogan's decision to cut tolls would strangle the funding source for the replacement.
Hogan vetoed their legislation and vowed to fight any attempt at an override when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Hogan said he always supported replacing the Nice Bridge. Middleton said he recalled the administration saying too few vehicles used the bridge to make replacing it worthwhile. Rahn told lawmakers this year that the existing bridge could remain in service another 30 years.
Middleton, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the legislation that Hogan vetoed played a valuable role in ensuring a replacement bridge. He said he hoped the bill would bring the Republican administration to the negotiating table.
"I wanted to work with the governor," Middleton said. "I still want to work with the governor."
He said he would take Hogan's criticism "as just politics."
Middleton said he was asked by the administration not to attend Hogan's news conference.
He said it was the first time in more than 20 years as a legislator that he was disinvited from a gubernatorial announcement in his district.
A spokeswoman for Hogan said no lawmakers were invited.
"Senator Middleton in particular was not invited to take part in this press conference because he did absolutely nothing to make this announcement possible," spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said. "In fact, the actions he did take only made today's announcement more difficult."
Eberly said not inviting Middleton and other local lawmakers showed Hogan was unwilling to share credit.
"It's unfortunately the reality of politics," Eberly said. "It would have been a great opportunity to highlight bipartisan cooperation."
Construction of the new bridge would be funded with toll revenue and debt that Rahn described as "a much more sophisticated" financing scheme than in other projects. It involves refinancing three bonds and paying off a fourth early, plus trimming about $25 million a year in state transportation projects.
Rahn said no other projects will be canceled or delayed in order to build the bridge.
The replacement bridge would be wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic — two in each direction — plus a pedestrian and bike path, officials said.
Hogan laid out a timeline that would let companies bid on the project in 2018, let construction begin in 2020 and open the bridge to traffic in 2023.