Yearning for -- and fighting for -- old Annapolis Residents don't want drawbridge replaced with high span.

August 13, 1991|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Evening Sun Staff

Thomas McCarthy grew up in Annapolis, but not the Annapolis of today, he says.

McCarthy grew up in a smaller town, a place where the lives of professional and weekend watermen were centered on Chesapeake Bay, and generations of families lived on the same streets in the same houses.

That Annapolis is disappearing, McCarthy says. More homes are being bought by families without ties to the city. More second homes are being bought by those who spend only weekends there.

McCarthy and others think the growth and development has gotten out of hand.

It is that feeling and fear that has pushed the Annapolis attorney, who acknowledges he's never gotten involved in politics before, to the forefront of a battle with those who would construct a high bridge over the Severn River to replace the low drawbridge.

"I grew up in Annapolis, but I went to school in Washington and I worked in Baltimore. When I came back to Annapolis, I was shocked at the degradation of road construction," McCarthy says. "The [proposed] bridge struck me as another massive road construction project."

Last March, McCarthy ran across "a couple of little old ladies" who had been meeting in each other's homes, trying to find a way to prevent the state from replacing the city's low drawbridge with a high one. McCarthy asked if there was anything he could do to help. Soon afterward, the Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge was formed.

About 100 regular members meet each week, besides another 50 or so who work on a phone committee. Made up of Annapolis residents, the majority of whom have never protested anything before, the organization has gotten the support of most of the city, including Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, in the fight against state transportation officials and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who back the high-bridge design.

Schaefer was to meet with the group today.

"I think we can change his mind," McCarthy says of the governor. "Maybe I'm being a little naive, but I think once he has all the facts, he'll change his mind.

"It's phenomenal how easy it has been to get people involved," McCarthy says. "I think people are tired of all the development.

"I think the bridge is symbolic of what has happened to Annapolis in the last five years. People are disillusioned. Just look at Weems Creek," he says.

Construction of the U.S. 50/301 exchange at Rowe Boulevard filled Weems Creek with sediment and resulted in a lawsuit. The State Highway Administration agreed to clean up the creek as part of an out-of-court settlement two years ago.

But McCarthy says the incident is indicative of the tension between many residents and supporters of growth.

"I think Annapolis is heartsick," he says. "And now we have this beautiful old bridge that has a lot of sentiment attached to it. They want a new bridge that will inspire that same sort of sentiment."

Built in 1924, the Severn River Bridge is 1,800 feet long, 12 feet high and crumbling. The state and residents agree only that something has to be done about the span.

The bridge that the state proposes would be 2,800 feet long and 80 feet high. Because traffic on the current bridge averages about 21,000 vehicles a day, state officials have said that building a high span would speed traffic that now halts each time the drawbridge is raised.

The cost of building the new high span is pegged at $42.5 million. The state has said it does not want to delay construction because it would lose $32 million in federal money for the project.

The citizens' group has issued a 21-page report that describes two alternate designs for the bridge.

The first proposal calls for reconstructing the current bridge, at an estimated cost of $16 million. According to the proposal, reconstruction would cause less damage to the river bottom because only three new piers would be needed.

The second alternative proposes a new low bridge, about the same height and length, but wider than the current span. The group estimates its cost at $26.4 million.

The estimates for both proposals do not include consulting fees.

Even though a well-publicized Severn River bridge design contest was held last year, and plans for a new span have been in the making for eight years, McCarthy says most people had no idea what was going on.

"Ignorance of the public was the reason nothing was said in 1984," he says. "No one knew the competition was for a high bridge only. Once we got out there to educate people and tell them just what this 80-foot bridge means, everything changed."

State officials didn't ask for the residents' input, he says. "They came back with the project so late. There was no public hearing till July. In the design competition, only eight of the 14 judges were Maryland residents, and only three of those eight weren't employees of the state."

Even if the governor does not change his mind, McCarthy says, residents will at least feel they had an opportunity to give their input. His group also has said it is prepared to file suit try to block an 80-foot-high span.

"It's not going to stop here," McCarthy says. "To borrow a quote from the black community, I think the people of Annapolis are feeling empowered."

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