A federal judge has thrown out two lawsuits that aimed to block construction of the controversial Severn River replacement bridge in Annapolis, ruling that state officials carefully considered all aspects of the proposed span before it was approved.
Senior Judge Joseph C. Howard, who heard arguments in the case last week, granted the state's summary judgment motion in a decision signed late yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Howard agreed with state lawyers that Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge Inc., the civic group that opposes construction of the new span, unduly delayed its court action and unfairly prejudiced the state and federal transportation officials, defendants in the case.
Howard also said the city of Annapolis, which filed a companion suit that was combined with the citizen group's complaint, supported the bridge project "for years," and should now be stopped from challenging it because state officials relied on that support in approving the current bridge design.
Jessica Hay, a director of the citizen group, said last night that the organization "half expected" Howard to rule in the state's favor.
"The decision is not going to stop us," she said. "We're confident in our case, and I'm sure we'll appeal."
The timing of the decision gives the plaintiffs time to file a quick appeal, but it is unclear how fast the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, Va., would consider one.
Sources said it is possible, if an appeal is put on a "fast track" in Richmond, that the court could consider it before the planned start of construction on the new bridge in January.
Howard said in his opinion, however, that it is "likely" an appeal would not be heard until after the construction begins.
The citizens and the city of Annapolis opposed the 80-foot-high replacement bridge on a number of legal grounds and said the structure would be an eyesore that would stand high above the city's skyline.
State lawyers countered that the current bridge, on Md. 450, is one of the worst in the state in terms of condition, and badly needs replacement.
State officials also worried that they might lose $32 million in federal funding for the new $40 million bridge if the suits were successful.
Howard noted in his opinion that state highway officials considered environmental and visual impacts of the proposed bridge as early as 1983, when several area citizens were in on the decision-making process.
But he specifically ruled that the state's decision to build the current proposed span was not "arbitrary and capricious" in any way.
Rather, Howard said, state and federal officials carefully considered the proposed bridge's impact on the neighboring Jonas Green Park and Pendennis Shrub Swamp, and determined correctly that the bridge would have no impact there.
The defendants also protected foot and bicycle traffic on the new bridge by allowing room for additional lanes beside the main roadway, the judge said.
Howard said the impact of the new bridge on the view from the scenic overlook above it -- one of the chief complaints of the plaintiffs -- "was considered and found to be, at most, minimal."
"The specific impacts on Historic Annapolis . . . are based simply on a disagreement with the reasoned conclusions of the defendants," Howard said, in a paragraph that typified the opinion.