Cresting the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia on a sturdy five-speed, I looked out over the horizon. Pennsylvania was behind me, New Jersey in front. Below were the hallmarks of mid-Atlantic urban life: petrochemical facilities and casinos, but also pocket parks and pedestrian walkways.

After 12 miles of biking through the city with an organized group of environmental journalists from all over the country, I felt at once exhilarated to be on top of the world — or at least, on top of the tri-state area — and disappointed I cannot experience such a ride closer to my home in Baltimore.

Compared with our neighboring states, Maryland has been slow to adapt to the growing demand for safe cycling lanes, particularly over bridges. The only large bridge over a major waterway with a protected bike lane in the state is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which crosses the Potomac River near Washington. But, with the tragic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, the state suddenly has an opportunity to build a protected bike lane over the Patapsco River. Doing so would connect Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and open Dundalk to some of the economic opportunities that many cycling towns along trails have long enjoyed.

“It seizes an opportunity that would otherwise be lost,” said Daniel Paschall, mid-Atlantic manager for the East Coast Greenway. “There is so much more potential to build a network when you have a river crossing.”

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Jed Weeks, the executive director of Bikemore, a nonprofit group that promotes cycling, said that for Baltimore and its traffic problems to recover from the collapse, the bridge “needs to be fixed immediately.” However, he added, his organization has had “preliminary and encouraging” conversations about adding a bike lane to the replacement for the Key Bridge, which federal officials say could take until 2028 to finish.

A Maryland Transportation Authority spokesperson said it will evaluate the potential for a shared use bicycle path as part of the rebuilding plan. Bikes can’t be in the travel lanes of an interstate, but they can be within the right of way.

Patrick Starr, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, holds a map of the East Coast Greenway with Daniel Paschall, who is a manager there. Journalist Chuck Quirmbach stretches during the 12-mile ride as he looks at the map.
Patrick Starr, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, holds a map of the East Coast Greenway with Daniel Paschall, who is a manager there. Journalist Chuck Quirmbach stretches during the 12-mile ride as he looks at the map. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

The rebuilt bridge is expected to cost $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion. Additional protected bike lanes can drive the cost of a project up by $50 million or $75 million, less than 5%.

A Key Bridge bike lane might seem like a path to nowhere, with little bike infrastructure on either side. But that’s part of the “future-proofing” strategy that Weeks, Paschall and other cycling enthusiasts are pushing planners to consider.

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Bike infrastructure today is not necessarily what it will look like 10, 20 or 50 years from now. My father, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, couldn’t believe I biked over the Ben Franklin Bridge. He was similarly incredulous when I told him it was the second Philly bridge I’d biked over that day, the first being a smaller one over the Schuylkill River. Those were the days when we didn’t worry about climate change and emissions, let alone transit equity for those without cars.

“It seizes an opportunity that would otherwise be lost. There is so much more potential to build a network when you have a river crossing.”

Daniel Paschall, mid-Atlantic manager for the East Coast Greenway

Our neighbors in D.C. have their picks of bridges to cycle over in protected lanes. In addition to the Wilson Bridge, which connects Old Town Alexandria in Northern Virginia to the National Harbor complex in Oxon Hill, Maryland, cyclists can ride over the Arlington Memorial Bridge linking the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery and the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge connecting communities on both sides of the Anacostia River. The other Key Bridge, this one connecting Arlington, Virginia, to Georgetown, has a bike/pedestrian lane; riders can also cross the Potomac on the 14th Street bridge. Cyclists enjoy riding from those spans to Rock Creek Park, which has a series of bike-protected majestic spans.

More ambitious cyclists can add the C&O Canal to their ride, taking it all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. From there, they can hop on the Great Allegheny Passage and bike the 150 miles to Pittsburgh, stopping in some of the picturesque towns swelling with inns, brewpubs and bike shops. The elevated bike lane has lifted many small economies.

How did Washington and Philadelphia get there, and we’re still here, bridge-bicycle bereft?

The Key Bridge is the first opportunity for a bicycle lane on a Baltimore bridge in quite some time. Former Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration promised a protected bike line on the new Gov. Harry Nice Memorial/Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge carrying U.S. 301 over the Potomac and connecting Southern Maryland to Virginia. The administration of his predecessor, Gov. Martin O’Malley, had chosen that plan in 2012. But by 2019 Hogan had cut funding for the lane as the bridge’s expenses mounted. The Maryland Transportation Authority approved the bridge without the bike path.

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A view biking near the Schuykill River in Philadelphia. Cyclists have several opportunities to cross this river.
A view near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Cyclists have several opportunities to cross this river. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

The state replaced the proposed full-service bike and pedestrian lane with a button cyclists push to warn traffic they are coming. It’s the same solution it had implemented on the Thomas Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna after cyclists there had asked for a bike and pedestrian bridge.

The Nice/Middleton Bridge decision went over about as well as the Hatem one. The state received 19 pages of comments, almost all negative. One cyclist wrote: “This is the dumbest, unsafest design I could possibly imagine. I’d be safer swimming with my bike.”

It may seem too soon to be talking about a bike lane on the new Outer Harbor bridge, as rescuers only recently pulled from the Patapsco the last of the six construction workers killed in the collapse.

But Allysha Lorber, a longtime regional transportation planner, said another month or two may be too late. The state expects to put out a request for proposals for the replacement to the Key Bridge at the end of May, she said. If bike lanes are not in there, no bidder will add them because it will cost too much.

Lorber, who planned a recent vacation to San Francisco around a dream to cycle over the Bay Bridge, thinks the state and the city shouldn’t give up on bike lanes on the Key Bridge’s replacement. It is a once-in-decades opportunity that could pave the lane for everything else.

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“It would take a lot of planning and a lot of money and a lot of years to make it a connective network. But you have to start somewhere,” she said. “You have an opportunity now to make it truly transformative.”

Rona Kobell covers Baltimore County for The Banner and is an avid cyclist.

Rona Kobell is a regional reporter at The Banner focused on Baltimore County.

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