The Harry W. Nice Bridge today. Image by Dmclane101 licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland is working on a new bridge across the Potomac. It's not part of any proposed outer beltway, but rather is replacing the Harry W. Nice Bridge downriver from our region. While some plans include a path for pedestrians and cyclists, this feature could be cut out of the final design — meaning cyclists would have to use the vehicle lane while pedestrians would be stuck on shore.

The Nice Bridge, named after former Maryland governor Harry W. Nice, connects US Highway 301 between Charles County in Maryland to King George county in Virginia. The new bridge is a Maryland-led project, since they own the entire river up to the Virginia shore line.

The current bridge was built in 1938 as a two lane span. Since then, US 301 has been widened on both sides of the river and now the bridge’s two narrow lanes can create huge traffic jams through the otherwise rural counties on either side.

The bridge is also very steep to allow ship traffic underneath. That slows down things even more as trucks struggle to climb the ramp and other drivers deal with their fear of heights. Those conditions lead to a greater number of collisions on or near the bridge, which then create even worse traffic jams.

The current bridge is steep and narrow.  Image by Maryland Transportation Authority.

Here's what Maryland is proposing

Maryland has been working to replace the bridge for a long time, and now we are seeing some of the latest designs that are being proposed. The current Nice Bridge will not be expanded. Instead, Maryland wants to build a brand new bridge that is wider and not as steep, but is still able to handle the maritime traffic in the river below.

The new Nice bridge will be wider for cars and trucks, and current designs also include options for pedestrians and cyclists. However, final designs may strike this feature if it is deemed too expensive. If that’s the case, cyclists may still be able to ride in the general lanes of the new bridge, but that would be a severe blow to people who need a way to cross the river when they don’t want to use a car.

The project's website cites Maryland's Hatem Bridge across the Susquehanna River as an example where cyclists can ride across the bridge. Bikes were prohibited until 2016, but now they can use it (with restrictions). There are even signs and flashing lights to help drivers be aware of a bicycle ahead of them. However, as the Washcycle points out, “It's one thing to make the best of what you have by opening a bridge to cyclists…but it is totally different to leave biking and walking out of a new facility.”

Maryland has already dealt with the decades-long consequences of an an unsuitable bridge here, and should not repeat the mistakes when it comes to designing the bridge meant for the future. The Woodrow Wilson bridge that carries I-495 between Alexandria and Prince George's County was built wide enough to handle cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and even future transit.

Options with or without a pedestrian/bike path.  Image by Maryland Transportation Authority.

Make your voice heard about the design

Right now, the state is taking comments on what people think about the proposed designs. This is your chance to speak up for good pedestrian and bicycle access, as well as a better bridge for drivers. One option floated by the Washcycle would be to study what it would take to keep the current span open only to pedestrians and cyclists once the new bridge is built.

US 301 already acts as a bypass around Washington for many East Coast travelers, and a new Nice Bridge could encourage more people to take that route rather than I-95. However, both Maryland and Virginia need to take steps beyond building a new bridge to avoid the worst pitfalls of induced demand.

The new bridge will be four lanes instead of two, but if US 301 is widened beyond that in the area around the bridge, that could lead to the same traffic backups that plague the area today. It might also require Charles and King George counties to reconsider their land use and zoning. The temptation of a wider bridge could mean more sprawl to the area, and quickly erase the benefits the new bridge would otherwise bring.

If everything goes to plan, a final design will be announced later this year and construction could begin in 2020.