Locked federal loan increased cost of Nice/Middleton bridge

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Federal transportation officials blocked approval of Maryland’s loan request last summer to replace a bridge over the Potomac River, using a six-month delay to raise questions about bike lanes on another section of the city. highway.

In 2019, Maryland’s agency responsible for toll roads and bridges decided not to include a bicycle and pedestrian path project as part of a $463 million replacement for Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge, about 37 miles south of Washington. Maryland officials said it was that decision that appeared to bring additional federal scrutiny.

The bridge was already under construction without the path, and Maryland refused to consider changes to the plans. The loan was eventually approved with no new terms – but the wait increased its cost by at least $20 million as interest rates rose, according to a February estimate provided in documents obtained by The Washington Post .

The episode highlights the challenges facing the Department of Transportation, which under the Biden administration seeks to promote bicycle and pedestrian safety, racial equity and the environment. To achieve these goals, the federal agency must work with states that sometimes have other priorities – and usually have the last word. It’s a dynamic that will help shape $350 billion in road funding under the Infrastructure Act, which gives states near-complete control over which projects go ahead and leaves authorities federal look for informal ways to influence what is built.

“This is a microcosm of the larger challenges in the structure of the federal program,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “You can cite this as a prime example of where the administration is constrained by law.”

The infrastructure package handed the Department of Transportation new discretionary grant programs and increased the size of other programs, which the administration has tied to goals such as fighting climate change and promoting justice. racial. But most of the federal highway money is funneled to the states with few conditions on how it’s spent. Attempts to sway the decisions of state transportation departments — such as a December memo encouraging them not to widen highways — have drawn opposition from state leaders.

The Department of Transportation said in a statement that the Maryland loan has finally “closed to the satisfaction of both parties.”

“As part of the approval process for a $200 million loan, our team conducted due diligence, which includes asking standard questions and exploring alternatives that could benefit people who depend on the bridge and help protect safety, which is a priority in everything DOT does,” the statement read.

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The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates toll roads and bridges, had already been working with federal authorities for more than a year when the state formally requested the loan last summer to help replace the 80-year-old bridge. . Officials expected quick approval to lock in a favorable interest rate.

Instead, the Department of Transportation subjected the request to months of scrutiny, doing what Allen Garman, the Maryland authority’s director of treasury and debt, called in an e- email obtained by The Post “seemingly unprecedented requests for unrelated bike projects”.

garman informed the finance committee of the authority about the request in December, saying federal authorities initially wanted guarantees for an unrelated project on Interstate 95, then asked the state to install bike and pedestrian lanes on another stretch of freeway . Garman told board members that he believed federal money was “at risk.”

But Maryland transportation officials have refused to change their plans, according to documents obtained under the Maryland Public Information Act. And after a six-month delay, the Department of Transport approved the 30-year loan with no new conditions.

The Nice/Middleton The bridge opened in 1940 and carries two lanes of US 301 1.7 miles over the Potomac, connecting Charles County, Maryland, and King George County, Virginia. It supports approximately 6.5 million vehicles per year. With the narrow and aging bridge seen as a bottleneck, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (right) announced a plan in 2016 to replace it with a new crossing that would carry four lanes of traffic and include a separate cycle and pedestrian path.

But the toll authority decided the path wasn’t a good use of money and that the $64 million it would cost could be better spent widening Interstate 95. The decision was a disappointment. for Maryland bike advocates, who saw the bridge as a key. link in what they envision as a 50-mile network spanning Maryland and Virginia.

“It just doesn’t make sense these days” to build a bridge without dedicated space for cyclists and pedestrians, said Bill Niedringhaus, president of the Potomac Heritage Trail Association.

The new bridge will include signage warning drivers of cyclists and special joints between sections to accommodate bicycles, but Niedringhaus said even die-hard cyclists told him “they’d rather ride on the ring road”.

The law gives federal officials little say in project design — generally requiring them to approve loans to creditworthy applicants — but Maryland’s request was taken off the agenda of the Credit and Finance Board of the United States. Department of Transportation in August. Board approval was one of the final steps to securing the loan, but federal officials wanted to wait “pending further discussions with the project sponsor regarding pedestrian safety issues,” according to the agenda. .

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In late September, Greg Slater, then Maryland’s transportation secretary, and Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, discussed the project over the phone, according to emails.

Jim Ports, then-executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, responded in a Sept. 30 letter to Pollack, saying his state agency doesn’t have the authority to build bike lanes on US 301 because it doesn’t control not the road. The agency had already spent $1 million on the application process, Ports wrote, and “failure to complete the loan would mean that public funds would be wasted.”

With the loan stalled, Slater wrote to Ports in October while he was in California attending a convention of the influential American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“Based on some conversations here in California, I think we might need [to] get a ‘set foot down’ letter written,” Slater wrote in an email.

In December, Slater wrote to Garman wishing him a happy birthday. Garman had in mind the loan application still blocked under the Transportation Infrastructure Funding and Innovation Act.

“I greatly appreciate your assistance with the TIFIA loan and I’m sorry the USDOT has made seemingly unprecedented requests for unrelated bike projects,” he wrote. “Maybe we can give them the old bicycle bridge and save on the cost of demolition.”

Slater, now head of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority in Florida, declined, through a spokeswoman, to comment on the Maryland project. Ports, who replaced Slater as transportation secretary, said in an interview that Maryland officials were trying to ensure their position was understood by a relatively new set of Federal Highway Administration leaders.

“I think it’s reasonable that with new people you have different questions,” Ports said.

With no signs of movement on the loan application, an official from the contractor building the bridge wrote to the toll authority in January to ensure the company would still be paid. Maryland officials then began laying the groundwork for alternative forms of borrowing.

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Still, the federal loan was more attractive because it would allow the state to lock in what would likely be a lower interest rate before dipping into federal funds in 2023. On Feb. 9, Garman wrote to his colleagues to say that the loan remained uncertain and that the delay would cost about $20 million more as interest rates rose.

Ports said in the interview that Maryland officials were eventually able to satisfy federal authorities and clear up any misunderstandings they may have had about the loan application. In February, it was put back on the agenda of the federal committee and the loan was closed at the end of April.

Bike lane advocates are exploring ways to retain the original bridge as a dedicated crossing for bicycles and pedestrians. Local leaders in Charles County had previously concluded they could not manage the cost of maintaining the bridge, and the transportation authority plans to demolish it, using debris to build a fish reef.

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