By King George County Administrator Neiman C. Young, PhD.

Have you driven across the Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge which spans the Potomac River and connects King George County, Virginia, to Charles County, Maryland, along route 301 recently? If so, you were one of over 18,600 travelers to do so that day. Over 6.6 million vehicles traverse the bridge annually. With that volume of usage, it only makes sense that a bridge originally built in 1940 would need replacing. The Memorial Bridge, named in 1968 for Maryland Governor Harry W. Nice, was originally built for $5 million over the course of two years. Since that time, it has undergone needed upkeep and seen tremendous growth in the number of commuters traveling that corridor regularly. Recent bridge work and traffic, speculations over funding, challenges of replacing park land, and determining next steps have King George County residents wondering, “What is the future of the Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge?”

The 1.9 miles of two-lane bridge are in frequent need of repairs. Paint, superstructure steel, substructure, and decking are the bridge’s major elements which have all been assessed for current conditions, as well as predicted future conditions if a new bridge is not built soon. The results of these assessments verify the bridge is reaching the end of its lifespan and is currently in fair condition at best. The cost of maintaining the current bridge over the coming decades is estimated in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars range. The other component to consider in maintaining the current bridge is traffic. In order to make repairs, the two-lane bridge is often functioning with single-lane closures.

Although bridge work is often completed during off-peak hours, the lane closures stop the free flow of traffic and often cause delays. Vehicle collisions and disabled vehicles also cause delays as they block one if not both lanes of travel. In 2015, there were 24 total crashes and 12 rear end collisions. All crashes blocked both lanes for extended periods. Large trucks must climb the bridge at a slow pace with no “climbing lane” which adds to the slow downs. There are approximately 1,200 requests for wide-load truck crossings each year, many of which are military related; however, some loads are of an agricultural nature. During normal traffic operations, approximately 1,000 vehicles in each direction cross the bridge each hour. During lane closures, only 400-600 vehicles in each direction cross the bridge each hour. During the weekends in August, drivers often experience up to a four-mile backup approaching the bridge due to increased congestion which is only expected to increase over time. The bottleneck created by the existing two-lane bridge has drivers feeling frustrated to say the least.

To relieve these frustrations, address safety needs, and address monetary needs of maintaining the current bridge as costs continue to mount, Maryland’s Governor Hogan, law makers, MDTA, as well as engineers and other officials began discussions on financing a bridge replacement several years ago. A bridge type cost evaluation was completed to determine the types of bridges that might work for this project and then a geotechnical evaluation was completed on the existing site. Various alternative designs were evaluated to accommodate the site and minimize the impact of construction on the site, as per NEPA preferences. The Federal Highway Administration, US Navy, NOAA Fisheries, and the US Coast Guard coordinated and gave input as to suggestions for bridge design changes which ultimately led to cost savings in the tens of millions of dollars.

On November 21, 2019, the MDTA Board approved a $463 million contract for Skanska-Corman-McLean (SCM) Joint Venture to design and build a bridge to replace the existing structure. Virginia will contribute $13 million to the project. SCM has local ties, had the highest rated proposal, and the lowest bid for the project. A separated bicycle/pedestrian path was added to the bid as a part of the procurement process, as per the MDTA’s request. However, due to an additional $64 million cost, limited daily use, and analysis of the addition to the project, the board ultimately voted to remove the path from the plans. Overall, practical design efforts reduced cost by over $200 million. However, costs were not the only concern when considering how to proceed with replacing the bridge; an expanded bridge would mean a need for more land, and the land in question has specific restrictions.

According to MDTA’s plans, King George County will lose 2.86 acres of Wayside Park and approximately 1.071 acres of Barnesfield Park. Both parks were donated to the County through an agreement with NPS and have covenant restrictions that require the land to be used for recreational activities into perpetuity. Since the lost acreage is going to be acquired for public right of way, VDOT, on behalf of MDTA, must replace the lost acreage with like land of equal or greater value. The Board and VDOT agreed to define “like land” as property that would provide the general public the same access to water and water related activities as the public is currently afforded by Wayside Park. In addition to securing like land, the Board established a requirement that VDOT procure market available property, as the Board does not support the use of eminent domain.

Therefore, the County selected twelve properties for VDOT to evaluate and consider for procurement and then transfer to King George County. Over the course of eighteen months, VDOT reviewed the properties with comprehensive evaluation criteria to include land value, price points, traffic counts, and the potential number of citizens that would have to be relocated if necessary. In the end, two properties met the Board’s vision to expand the County’s public waterfront access. In addition, this transaction would increase the County’s park land inventory by slightly over 164 acres. Thus, the Point of Barnesfield Park, a 166-acre site that abuts the northern boundary of the current Barnesfield Park footprint and Roseland Property, a 2-acre residential, waterfront view site currently occupied by a two-story home, were chosen to accommodate the new bridge.

The new bridge will boast a four-lane span that will align with the existing roadway approaches in Maryland and Virginia. The four, twelve-foot-wide lanes with two-foot shoulders will double capacity and improve safety while enhancing emergency response accessibility and maintenance/inspection activities. The height of the new span will accommodate tall vessels. It will also have all-electronic, cashless, tolling. The new bridge has been hailed by the local and regional community, including the adjacent Naval Support Facility Dahlgren.

There are several benefits of the new bridge. Materials from the demolished bridge will be used to create an artificial fish reef. MDTA and SCM are partnering with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and Maryland Department of Natural Resources to fund oyster seeding in the lower Potomac River basin. Construction will benefit fish and man alike, as new bridge construction is said to create more than 500 jobs. Construction will begin in early 2020, and the new bridge is expected to open by 2023. One could say the future of the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge is bright, as the gleaming new bridge will in fact carry drivers into the next century with a predicted 100-year service life.