Bridge Case Set To Begin

Judge Will Decide Whether To Stop Work

November 25, 1991|By Citizen's for | Citizen's for,The Scenic Severn River Bridge and Defense Briefings filed in Baltimore's U.S. District Court. Robert Lee Staff writer

Did state and federal highway officials go through all the public hearings and bureaucratic red tape required to replace the beloved old Severn River drawbridge with a behemoth 80-foot span?

This and other questions will be weighed tomorrow by U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Howard, who will decide whether to halt work on the Route 450 replacement span, slated to begin next week.

Bryson Popham, one of two private Annapolis lawyers representing the city free in its lawsuit challenging the high span, says state and federal highway planners didn't meet all the necessary requirements, but concedes "there is no smoking gun."

"The fact is the State Highway Administration did not conduct any impact studies that should have been required by law . . . and they made huge changes in the design with absolutely no public involvement," Popham said.

Lawyers from the state and federal highway administrations are forbidden to discuss a pending case.

"We have obtained all of the permits necessitated by law," SHA Attorney Douglass Silber said Friday, referring tothe state's lengthy pre-trial statement of facts, filed this month.

Howard has been asked to review an alphabet of seven different federal and state codes, ranging from the National Historic PreservationAct (NHPA) to the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

Popham insists that the state hasn't lived up to the spirit of the regulations,instead relying on debatable statements such as the new bridge wouldhave "no adverse effect" on protected historic buildings at the U.S.Naval Academy and the Colonial Annapolis Historic District.

The proposed high bridge would "loom" over the historic vistas of Annapolis, harming aesthetics, allow bigger boats resulting in more wake damage on the Severn, flood the historic district with traffic and eventually harm the tourism industry, opponents argue.

Both the city anda private group, Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge Inc., have filed separate lawsuits challenging the high span. Howard is to hear the two cases together.

Much of the city's case against the high bridge centers on whether the Federal Highway Administration should have granted a "categorical exclusion" for the project -- a sort of"carte blanche" that allowed the State Highway Administration to move ahead without conducting any new environmental, traffic or noise impact studies.

The logic of granting a categorical exclusion for the project was that because a two-lane bridge was being replaced by a two-lane bridge, additional studies were not needed.

The federal decision has saved the state thousands of hours of study. But bridge opponents say it has allowed the project to come dangerously close to construction without anybody knowing what its consequences will be.

The original exclusion was granted in December of 1983, then reasserted in 1985 and again earlier this year as the SHA changed its plansto 65-foot and then 80-foot clearance designs. High-bridge opponentsbelieve those rulings were inappropriate and that citizens, not a federal agency, should have determined whether each new design would have an adverse impact.

The trial begins tomorrow at 2 p.m. at U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

A LOT OF WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE

1924

The Old Severn River Drawbridge, standing 1,800 feet long with 12 feet of clearance, opens.

1979

Four bridge spans suddenly sink six inches and have to be replaced.

1980

SHA engineers determine that the entire bridge will have to be replaced.

1983

* June 23: MD DOT and SHA meet with 60 citizens to study alternatives for the new span. "Strong sentiment" is expressed in favor of a high span rather than a drawbridge.

* Dec. 22: Federal Highway Administrationgrants the SHA a Categorical Exclusion, allowing it to proceed on the project without environmental, traffic or noise-impact studies.

1984:

* April 30: Annapolis City Council endorses a high-level "cable stayed fixed span" that would rise at least 150 feet in the air.

* May 10: Gov. Harry Hughes sponsors a meeting with the Maryland Commission on the Capital City, including Mayor Richard Hillman, Sen. Gerald Winegrad, Delegate John Astle and representatives from the Historic Annapolis Foundation and USNA. The group passes a motion in favor of a conventional high-level fixed alternative, preferably with a 60-foot clearance.

* May 23: At a Location and Design Public hearing, the SHA describes a low level drawbridge as "not . . . a reasonable option." Citizens favor high bridge and tunnel options.

1985

* May 29: FHA reaffirms the Categorical Exclusion for a bridge with 65 feet of clearance.

1987

* November: Mayor Dennis Callahan urges the secretary of Transportation to press forward with the project, reaffirms the city's desire for for a fixed high span.

1988

*Nov. 28: SHA yields to Coast Guard and Naval Academy demands to raise the vertical clearance of the proposed fixed span to 75 feet.

1990:

* March: A Towson architectural firm wins a yearlong bridge competition with a 2,800-foot-long and 80-foot-high design that stretches deep into Jonas Green Park.

* December: FHA allocates $32 million for the bridge, says the money is only available for 1991.

1991

* September: Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge -- joined later by the City of Annapolis -- file suit to stop bridge construction that is scheduled to begin in December.

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