Federal funding for Nice/Middleton Bridge in ‘jeopardy’

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A federal loan that Maryland was counting on to finance construction of the new Nice/Middleton Bridge is in “significant jeopardy,” a top Maryland Transportation Authority official said on Tuesday.

The state applied for a $200 million loan through the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program in mid-2019, expecting the approval process to take about a year.

But in an update for the authority’s board of directors, Allan W. Garman, who heads the MDTA Treasury and Debt Division, said the U.S. Department of Transportation has yet to sign off on the loan.

“The loan is essentially stalled” with the agency’s Credit Counsel, which administers borrowing programs, Garman said. “We believe the loan is in jeopardy of not being approved, and that’s despite our compliance with all federal guidelines.”

When Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced plans to build a replacement span, he pledged there would be a separate lane for bicycles and pedestrians. That feature was dropped later to save money.

Garman said the holdup with the loan is related to bike and pedestrian safety concerns.

“They showed us one of our press releases when our board decided to not build a separate lane for pedestrians and bicycles,” he said.

The loan, through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, was slated to cover about a third of the cost of the new span.

Construction of the new bridge (known formally as the “Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas ‘Mac’ Middleton Bridge”) began in July 2020. Crews have finished nearly 60% of their work and the bridge is slated to open in early 2023.

The 1.7 mile Potomac River span is being built alongside a 1940s-era bridge that connects Newburg, in Charles County, with King George County, Va.

Eliminating the bike/pedestrian lane was estimated to save the state $60 million, state transportation officials said at the time. They used the money to widen a 5-mile section of southbound I-95 in Harford County, between the Maryland House Travel Plaza and MD 24, a site of frequent traffic backups and accidents.

If the TIFIA loan falls through, the state will have to arrange other financing, most likely by floating bonds, MDTA Chief Financial Officer Deborah Sharpless told board members.

“In the next four months, probably, we’re going to have to make a decision. It takes time to prepare for a bond sale,” she said. “We’ve all heard ‘it’s not over until the fat lady sings.’ She’s not singing yet, but she’s warming up.”

Sharpless said MDTA will push forward with its loan request until there is a resolution one way or another, despite the fear that it is in “significant jeopardy.”

“We’re very mindful of the cost that we incur during this time period, because we’ve spent a significant amount of money securing this loan.”

Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) said it remains to be seen how much more the state ends up spending on alternative borrowing. “Sixty million dollars — or whatever the amount of savings — is not going to materialize,” he said. “It’s not going to be what they expected when they made this decision.”

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci downplayed the uncertainty surrounding the federal loan. “We can do it in other ways,” he said.

A request for comment from the U.S. Department of Transportation was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

MDTA Chief Operating Officer William Pines told the board “there seemed to be some confusion” in the state’s discussion with federal highway officials. “We are providing cycling accommodations on the Nice/Middleton Bridge,” he said. “We’ve made considerable investments to that end.”

In a statement, an MDTA spokesman said the authority is investing more than $2 million to include safety enhancements for bicyclists, including bike-friendly roadway joints and “intelligent” lighting and signage.

The authority is working on a letter to federal transportation officials reminding them that the project received National Environmental Policy Act approval without a dedicated bike lane.

“The design for the bridge was well-known and [construction] is well under way,” Garman noted with a chuckle.

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