The lawsuit alleges that the late modification of the plan — along with a proposal to demolish the old bridge using explosives — is a violation of federal and state environmental review laws. Cycling groups are asking a U.S. Greenbelt District Court judge to block the demolition so officials can assess the old bridge’s suitability for use in a planned trail system spanning Maryland and Virginia.
“In our day and age, it is inconceivable that a major new two-state bridge crossing the Potomac River would not have facilities for bicycles and pedestrians; especially since the bridge will be in use for a century,” David Brickley, president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association, said in a statement. “This lack of foresight can be addressed by converting Nice’s historic bridge into a world-class walking and cycling attraction.”
The idea of preserving the bridge has the support of federal lawmakers and both major party candidates for governor of Maryland. State transportation officials said they explored the idea of keeping the 82-year-old bridge, but found no one willing to pay for the cost of maintenance. The new bridge will be accessible to bicycles and will have warning signs for drivers, but cycling advocates argue it will be too dangerous to cross.
The 1.7 mile crossing connects Charles County in Maryland with King George County in Virginia. It transports nearly 7 million vehicles each year.
Bike advocates and lawmakers want to save the Potomac Bridge as demolition begins
The lawsuit names as defendants the transportation authority, the Maryland Department of Transportation and the United States Department of Transportation, which provided a construction loan and issued environmental approvals for the bridge.
The Maryland agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Federal officials declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Although environmental lawsuits challenging transportation projects are usually filed before construction begins, this is not a requirement. Eric Brenner, former chair of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said advocates expected state officials to agree to preserve the old bridge and described their legal challenge as a “last appeal”.
“There was an easier alternative, which was not to demolish the bridge,” Brenner said.
The original proposal for the new bridge would have created four lanes for cars and trucks, with a separate cycle and pedestrian lane. That plan was studied as part of an environmental review that ended in 2012, according to the lawsuit. But in 2019 the transport authority abandoned the route as a cost-cutting measure – a late change which the lawsuit said was an illegal ‘bait and switch’.
“Reviewing and selecting one configuration while building another violates environmental review laws, as well as the public trust,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would prohibit the state from demolishing the bridge and prevent the federal government from providing funding for the demolition until new environmental assessments are completed. In a memo asking the judge to issue the injunction while the case is pending, trail advocates argue the new bridge could still open, even if the old one is left standing.
“Delaying the demolition of the historic bridge in Nice will avoid adverse environmental and human consequences that have not been sufficiently taken into account,” they wrote.