ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that the state would proceed with plans to build an 80-foot-high bridge over the Severn River, despite fierce community opposition and the threat of lawsuits to stop construction.
The governor warned that the state would lose $32 million in federal money for the planned $40 million span unless it proceeds with the project.
Mr. Schaefer announced his decision after a meeting with Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, state Delegate Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, and top state highway officials.
In a letter addressed to the "Citizens of Maryland," the governor said: "Few issues have evoked such deep feelings in the community, and because of those sentiments, I took the extraordinary step of getting personally involved in plans that might otherwise be left for the highway engineers."
But Maryland must tell the Federal Highway Administration by Sept. 6 whether it will use the $32 million, and federal officials would not extend the deadline, "effectively forcing our hand to move ahead with existing construction plans," Mr. Schaefer wrote.
If the state were to scrap plans for the high bridge and consider another span to replace the Route 450 drawbridge, Maryland could wait a decade or more for new federal money, Mr. Schaefer said.
He said delaying construction would threaten the safety of motorists crossing the decaying, 67-year-old drawbridge, which averages 21,000 vehicles a day.
Mr. Schaefer's decision came two weeks after he met with opponents of the planned two-lane high bridge and told them he would consider their case for a lower span before making a decision.
Opponents, who argue that the bridge would ruin the city's historic skyline, harm the environment and worsen congestion, vowed yesterday to go to court to fight the high span.
Thomas McCarthy Jr., an Annapolis attorney and a leader of an anti-bridge group called "Citizens for the Severn Scenic River Bridge," said his group expects to file a lawsuit within a month. Mr. McCarthy said he and other local attorneys will represent the group but have not determined specific grounds for the suit.
He said that the group likely would argue that highway planners did not conduct adequate required reviews of the planned bridge's impact on the environment and the city's historic district.
The state has said it has conducted such reviews and has complied with all state and federal requirements.
"The real issue here is the citizens taking back control over what happens to this town," Mr. McCarthy said. "It's sad when a town has to go to court to save itself."
The anti-bridge group is planning fund-raisers to pay for the legal battle and has gathered more than 6,000 signatures from area residents on a petition opposing the high bridge.
The Annapolis city council has authorized the city attorney to sue to stop the bridge, and a private law firm has agreed to represent the city at no cost. City Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson would not discuss possible grounds for a lawsuit.
He is to meet with city aldermen and attorneys on Sept. 9 to discuss possible legal action.
While most aldermen support a lawsuit, Mayor Hopkins said that the decision on the bridge's design should be left to the governor.
"It's a very difficult decision for him to make, I know," Mr. Hopkins said. "But I am convinced that he took into consideration sincerely the opinions of all, and I support the governor's decision for this reason."
The state plans to sign off on contracts to build the bridge by November, and construction is scheduled to begin next year.