A bridge too high

July 17, 1991

Since 1983 and 1984, when the initial planning and public hearings were held for a replacement of the old Route 450 Severn River bridge, a great deal has changed in Annapolis. For one, this quaint, historic seaport has been besieged by growth and by the inevitable road projects that growth usually brings. Meanwhile, a number of savvy architects and planners have begun to sing the praises of the human-scale charms of towns like Annapolis. People will pay big bucks to live in quaint, old places like Annapolis or Leesburg, Va. -- or even in new places built to feel like them.

Alas, these market lessons seem lost on the State Highway Administration, which now seems determined to carry out out its plans to build a 75-foot-high bridge that will dwarf the scale of the historic district around which the city is built. Few planning issues have brought more unified opposition from residents and politicians in Annapolis than the plans for this monstrosity.

The state argues that the design won a competition and the public hearings in 1983 and 1984 drew public support for a high bridge that would not pose an inconvenience to cars as does the current drawbridge. The state also points out that further delays could endanger roughly $32 million in federal funding.

But opponents point out that the "public support" for a high bridge was, in reality, only a handful of speakers at one public hearing -- most of them engineers. The competition was restricted to designs for a high bridge; no alternatives were considered.

Even if the current project is delayed, it is far from clear that federal funding could not be obtained for a low-rise bridge. In fact, current drafts of the new transportation bills pending in Congress appear to encourage states not to build grandiose projects simply because federal money is there, but rather to focus on projects that are appropriate for the setting.

If state planners are placing their highest priorities on the convenience of automobiles, then a 75-foot-high bridge may indeed be the best structure for this site. But if they want to build an environment friendly to human beings -- one which, like historic Annapolis itself -- makes it possible for people to feel part of a community, then it's time to go back to the drawing board.

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