Nicodemus Bridge makeover ruins popular fishing spot

July 23, 2011

"I don't want to piddle in anyone's corn flakes," as my grandma Opal Starner used to say, her prelude to the main event.

Folks at Baltimore's transportation department, put your hands over the bowls.

I took a ride late last week to see your Nicodemus Bridge makeover. Nice idea, fine execution. But here comes the piddle: you ruined a half-century-old fishing spot for no good reason.

The bridge over Liberty Reservoir at the Baltimore County-Carroll County line has been a great fishing spot since Howdy Doody was a 2-by-4. Parents and grandparents took kids until they could take themselves. Someone strung up lights under the decking for night fishing.

When Martin O'Malley was mayor, Baltimore authorities who control the Liberty watershed closed the bridge to anglers, citing safety concerns. While it was true that the distance between anglers' backsides and traffic was snug, police could not cite one case where someone accidentally stepped into oncoming cars.

The Yoda of Maryland fishing, Lefty Kreh, took exception to MOM's decision and within a year the bridge was spiffed up and once again part of the fishing landscape.

Nearly two years ago, Baltimore's Department of Transportation began a $8.5 million project to demolish the 1952 structure and replace it with a snazzy cement span complete with "custom sidewalks, safety fencing, ornamental railings and reconstructed roadway approaches," according to the agency's press release.

The work was recently completed, ahead of schedule. The clean lines and smooth surface make the bridge easy on the eyes and tires.

But as a fishing spot? The Nicodemus Bridge comes up short. And by that I mean, if you're short — say anything under 5-foot-9 — you can't comfortably get your fishing rod or net over the railing. For 5-foot-nothing me, the top of the railing is a chin-high 54 inches above the sidewalk.

"High enough for you?" asked fisherman and Carroll County farmer Bud Zuck, as he watched me measure it.

Zuck's fishing buddy, 13-year-old Tyler Mullinex, struggled on tip-toes to reel in his line before giving up and standing on top of a cooler.

As he watched, Zuck said that the old bridge's rail, about 1 foot shorter, was just fine and just as safe. Now, he said, he's had to include a ladder with his fishing gear.

Nearby, Howard Zwagil had other concerns.

"We have elderly people who come out to fish, and if someone's in a wheelchair? Forget it," said the Baltimore County fisherman. "You'll eventually see someone on a box or ladder fall off backward or fall over the railing."

Another fisherman chimed in.

"It's way too high," said Aldric Williams, who comes from the Baltimore County side to fish twice a day: at 5 a.m. before work and then to wind down after dinner. "It's like they're trying to kick us off the bridge."

A Baltimore City transportation spokeswoman said the bridge was designed to American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials standards, which require railings to be 54-inches high to ensure bicycle safety.

The problem with that explanation is that if the surface is considered a "sidewalk," as the original press release states, then the bicycles should be on the roadway, with other traffic. And, since there is no connecting sidewalk on either side of the 552-foot bridge, where's the safety gain?

As recently as March, the bridge inspector told the Carroll County Times that the railing would be 42 inches. So who tacked on the extra 12 inches? Someone must have gotten a real good deal on railings.

I'll give the final word to Zuck:

"How hard can it be to put up a fence?" he said, shaking his head. "Engineers, you know they never went fishing and they never had a 5-foot-2 wife."

Big wheels keep on turning

While we're on the topic of Baltimore government, let's pour another bowl of corn flakes, shall we?

Seems city leaders are having an "information hearing," whatever that is, on Wednesday at 11 a.m. about mountain biking at Loch Raven Reservoir.

In November 2009, 10 city council members filed a resolution that called for transportation and public works officials to work with the mountain biking community to update a decade-old watershed agreement. There was a little back-and-forth, then the city found the money to hire watershed police officers. Naturally, the officers began to issue warnings to riders for straying off the fire roads, which are fine for walkers but useless for mountain bikers.

The mountain bikers say they have been good stewards, picking up trash, educating riders not to cause erosion and eliminating "rogue" single-track trails that cause damage.

Department of Public Works officials say their first responsibility is maintaining a clean drinking water supply, which means it must keep strict buffer areas and restrict human uses. When asked if an "agreement" with mountain bikers might ultimately be extended to restrictions on fishing and other activities, city officials won't say.

But the city's position doesn't hold water. Lots of other jurisdictions have figured a way to make reservoirs and recreation compatible. New trail-building techniques have drastically reduced erosion and runoff. City officials have been antagonistic. There's no reason this matter should have dragged on since Thanksgiving 2009.

It's time for the city council to end this foolishness and forge a new deal. The hearing by the council's Community Development Subcommittee is on the fourth floor of City Hall, 100 N. Holliday St.

Ya'll come.

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