Bridge plan gets mixed reviews

Compromise on project for Weems Creek delights some, disappoints others


March 16, 2003|By Kory Dodd | Kory Dodd,SUN STAFF

Looking out of over Weems Creek toward the Rowe Boulevard bridge from the sliding glass doors in his bedroom, Evan Belaga is filled with a sense of excitement.

As president of the Weems Creek Conservancy, Belaga has spent the past few years fighting to restore the sediment-clogged creek and lobbying the State Highway Administration to build a bridge that won't damage the Annapolis waterway.

Belaga's goals may finally be realized after the state recently decided to spend more money to clean up the creek and revise construction plans for a new bridge, narrowing its width.

But Annapolis Alderwoman Sheila M. Tolliver isn't as optimistic. She thinks that state officials are ignoring the community's concerns. Tolliver said she knows that sometimes you have to "make the best out of a bad deal, but in this case, there's no need to make a bad deal."

Belaga and Tolliver illustrate the strongly held views that Annapolis residents have about the state's latest proposal to replace the 50-year-old bridge, which connects Rowe Boulevard.

State officials have wanted to replace the bridge for years, but the debate intensified in September when community groups pushed for changes to the design of the proposed bridge, to be built next to the existing one.

The original plan called for a bridge to be built 6 feet from the old one, enabling the existing bridge to remain open during construction. The new bridge was to be 20 feet wider and include bicycle lanes, sidewalks and a wider median that could be turned into a fifth lane.

But residents were concerned about the environmental effects on the creek. They also feared that bicycle lanes along Rowe Boulevard near U.S. 50 would pose a safety hazard.

Heeding the concerns of state legislators and Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, state officials went back to the drawing board. They got rid of the bicycle lanes and a sidewalk. The width of each traffic lane was narrowed and the 1-foot median safety buffer zone was eliminated to help slow traffic. Instead of becoming 20 feet wider, the bridge became only 10 feet wider.

The state also plans to save three of the older trees near Farragut Road and replace the other trees that will be cut down. Special trees and shrubs will be planted in bio-remediation areas to act as a filter, cleaning water that will run off the bridge before it reaches the creek.

For Tolliver, the changes aren't much of an improvement. She said she thinks it is more important to prevent the damage than to clean it up later. She says the best approach would be to rebuild the bridge in its current location - saving nearby trees - and eliminate the space for a possible fifth lane.

She said the state could close one lane of the bridge and reroute traffic to other streets during construction. Tolliver said that even the Bay Bridge closes lanes for construction, adding that the dual bridge plan is unusual for a state project.

Detour not feasible

But Jeff Robert, chief project engineer with the highway administration, said closing one lane for construction would cause safety hazards and increase traffic.

If a lane were closed on Rowe Boulevard, he said, "it would back up traffic onto [U.S.] 50" and create a dangerous situation because of the speed difference between the two roads, he said.

Also, a state study found that "the other roads are not capable of carrying the capacity" of spillover traffic should a lane of Rowe Boulevard be closed during construction, Robert said.

As for the state's plans to build a median that could be converted into a fifth lane, Tolliver said: "Encouraging extra cars by adding to the traffic capacity is not helpful to the creek."

Besides, she said, "the four lanes on Rowe Boulevard will be more than enough for the projected amount of traffic" coming across the bridge.

The number of vehicles crossing the bridge each day was 44,000 in 1998; that figure is expected to rise to 53,000 by 2025, Tolliver said.

Robert said the median was included because the bridge has a life span of 80 years. If the need ever arises to expand it, the new design will allow for the least amount of impact on the area.

Moyer said the median is "an extension of what's on Rowe Boulevard now" that will simply increase the green space at a city gateway.

While she realizes not everyone is happy with the state's final plan, Moyer said, "We're going to recoup more than we're losing."

More cleanup projects

The state has also begun or is considering creek restoration projects in coordination with the county and city.

The state Department of Natural Resources has spent $50,000 on the Weems Creek Improvement Plan, a study that will be released Thursday. The study details the state of the creek and current and planned improvement projects, said Raja Veeramachaneni, chief of the Highway Hydrolics Division.

A landscaping project for the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium also will ease storm water runoff into the creek, as will an erosion reduction project to stop sediments flowing into the creek from the Porter Drive Outfall.

The highway administration has spent about $750,000 and is considering funding other projects, including the purchase of Priest Point, the creek's last remaining untouched wilderness area, he said.

The bridge's construction is slated to begin in the spring of next year and end in 2006, though funding for construction hasn't been approved yet, Robert said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has asked the federal government for $12 million - or 80 percent of the cost for the Weems Creek bridge project - and another $4 million for the improvement plan.

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