Gov. William Donald Schaefer told opponents of the planned 80-foot-high Severn River Bridge yesterday that he would consider their case for a lower span.
Opponents, who met with Schaefer for about 45 minutes, presented a slide show and a report arguing for a lower crossing and gave him a petition against the high bridge signed by more than6,300 Annapolis-area residents.
Schaefer cautioned that he still harbored serious reservations about reconsidering the bridge design because the state would lose $32 million in federal funds toward the estimated $40 million cost unlessit proceeds with its plans now.
But for the first time yesterday,the governor indicated he might reconsider the design -- after having repeatedly ruled out that possibility in recent weeks.
After theclosed-door meeting with bridge opponents, Page Boinest, a Schaefer spokeswoman, said, "He was very impressed with the presentation they gave, and he pledged to give it another look.
"It's safe to say that the doors are not shut on this bridge," Boinest said. "He could have said, 'We have no other choice but to build. Thank you very much, and have a nice day.' "
Opponents of the high span, which would replace the 67-year-old Route 450 drawbridge, lauded the governor's assurance as a significant breakthrough in their 11th-hour battle.
"The governor's promise is a tremendous advancement of our efforts," said Thomas McCarthy Jr., an Annapolis attorney and a leader of Citizens for the Severn Scenic River Bridge, a group fighting the high crossing.
"This is a complete change from before, when the governor wouldn't even listen to our arguments and said he would go ahead with the high bridge no matter what."
Annapolis Alderman Dean L. Johnson,I-Ward 2, who also attended the meeting, said, "I was definitely encouraged by what we heard today. A fair hearing was all we could ask for, and the governor gave us that."
Schaefer watched the group's slide show and listened as a narrator argued the high bridge would ruin the city's historic skyline, harm the environment, dump high-speed traffic onto a tiny, two-lane road, worsen congestion considerably and invite more development.
After the presentation, Schaefer said, "Anyone with any sense knows this bridge will change Annapolis. The town after the bridge is built will not be the same town as it is now."
Schaefer also said while the $32 million in federal money at stake will prove an important factor in his decision on the bridge, "it is not the only factor. It is (doing) the right thing that matters."
Opponents also gave Schaefer a 21-page report the citizens' group issued a few weeks ago, arguing that rebuilding the existing drawbridge or building a new, low draw span would cost much less than the high bridge. The group's report estimated rebuilding the existing bridgewould cost $16 million, while a new, low drawbridge would cost $26.4million.
The report acknowledges that the foundation beneath the existing span may not be sound enough to rebuild it but asks state highway officials to inspect wood pilings more closely.
Both the Annapolis City Council and the County Council have unanimously opposed the high bridge design. But state lawmakers representing Annapolis, supporting state highway officials, refused late last month to "join the bandwagon" of protest against the high bridge.
Among elected officials representing Annapolis, only Johnson and County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, attended yesterday's meeting.
State highway planners say they plan to sign off on construction contracts for the bridge by next month. Construction is scheduled to begin next year.