Gov. William Donald Schaefer today gave the state Department of Transportation the go-ahead to build an 80-foot-high bridge to replace the aging, low Severn River drawbridge in Annapolis, despite fervent objections from city residents.
Schaefer issued a letter addressed to the "Citizens of Maryland" stating that federal dollars, or the possible lack thereof, had forced the state to move ahead with plans to build the high bridge.
"My staff and I talked at length with the Federal Highway Administration in an effort to extend the period of public discussion on the design," Schaefer said in the letter. "But Highway Administration officials, given the dwindling pool of federal dollars for state projects -- especially near the close of the federal fiscal year -- refused to grant us additional time.
"If we give up the money now, it could be another decade -- if ever -- before a similar funding opportunity presents itself. That is too long a period to wait to begin work on a safer bridge."
State officials have said all along they stand to lose the $32 million in federal funds promised for the new bridge.
Thomas McCarthy Jr., a member of the Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge, an organization formed to halt the construction of the high bridge, called the governor's claim on the lack of available funding "absurd."
McCarthy said his group plans to appeal the decision in court.
"The governor knows full well the state Department of Transportation has always gotten close to 80 percent of its requested funding," he said. "It's true that the discretionary funds are drying up but now there are non-discretionary funds that should make it even easier to get projects funded. That statement just flies in the face of the realities of federal funding."
The crumbling, 67-year-old bridge has been at the center of this summer's hottest debate in Annapolis. Both state officials and residents agree a new bridge is needed. But their agreement ends there.
The state wants to build a 2,800-foot-long, 80-foot-high bridge. The existing bridge is 1,800 feet long and 12 feet high. Annapolis residents want to see a bridge similar in size built to replace the existing bridge.
The citizens group met with the governor this month and submitted two alternate bridge designs, both low bridges and both costing less than the now-approved $42.5 million high bridge.
McCarthy said much of the dispute could have been avoided if the state had asked for residents' input on the design. But Schaefer said he found no fault with the state process.
Still, McCarthy said he is glad members of his organization finally were given the opportunity to voice their concerns.
"We are glad the governor listened to us," McCarthy said. "We knew he had a difficult decision to make. It doesn't come as any large blow to us. It doesn't change our plans. We're going into court. We haven't made any secret of this."