Despite a crescendo of vocal opposition in recent months, the State Highway Administration's plans for replacing the 67-year-old Route 450 bridge across the Severn River with a new, higher span seem sound. If opponents succeed in seriously delaying the decaying drawbridge's replacement, the public's greater interest will have been ill-served.
The existing bridge is the centerpiece of a postcard view of Annapolis and, particularly, parts of the U.S. Naval Academy. Driving down the tree-lined, scenic Route 450 hill and crossing the bridge into Annapolis is one of the prettiest and most frequently used ways into the state capital and county seat, particularly by county residents.
No one denies that the bridge has to be replaced. State highway officials rate it one of Maryland's two weakest bridges. Walking across the span reveals the obvious need for extensive cosmetic repairs. But the experts are far more concerned with the structural flaws (several portions of the bridge settled in the Severn River to dangerous levels in 1984). Traffic on the two-lane span already has reached a point that planners did not expect until the early 21st century. The drawbridge opens 9,000 times a year, delaying vehicular traffic so an ever-increasing number of boats can proceed along one of the Chesapeake's premier rivers for pleasure sailors.
The current controversy concerns the design of the new bridge. Opponents say the replacement bridge will be too high, too wide, too concrete, too intrusive, too disruptive to nature, too potentially destructive to history -- too almost anything to be desirable. Plus, they contend, the community wasn't plugged into the process until too late.
We disagree. Highway officials initiated public discussion of the new bridge eight years ago, in 1983. Numerous Annapolis and Anne Arundel County community groups and politicians with interests ranging from environmental to historical to aesthetic participated in the process. The replacement design evolved from a highly unusual competition. The ground rules included aesthetics, nature and concern for history. The winning design was announced and posted for public inspection more than a year ago.
Well-intentioned citizens differ all the time over aesthetics. That's human nature. By putting up $8 million in state funds by mid-August, Maryland will qualify for $32 million in federal money earmarked specifically to do this job right. These factors tip the scale in favor of proceeding with replacing this dangerous relic as planned. We aren't happy that this higher bridge will alter a great view. But it seems certain to improve automotive and navigational traffic without marring the scenery, harming the environment or imposing any lasting damage on Annapolis.