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The Maryland Transportation Authority has approved an additional $50 million in its six-year capital budget for initial design of and right of way acquisition for a replacement Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced the funding Thursday, a significant addition to the $6 million in toll revenue previously allocated for preliminary engineering work on the bridge, which carries an estimated price tag of $850 million.

The funding will pay for right-of-way acquisition in both Maryland and Virginia. Initial design work will determine, among other elements, the bridge’s structure and the location of its support piers in the Potomac River.

“This is one giant step in making the bridge replacement a reality,” Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said in a statement announcing the funding. “I will continue to work with the Authority to move this project forward as money becomes available and appreciate that it has been identified as their No. 1 expansion priority.”

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) called the funding “not only a big victory for Charles County but the entire region.”

“This is a real commitment on the part of the state,” he said. “When you start releasing funds like $50 million, you know it’s going to go for a whole lot more than just studies, so for the first time I am confident that in the next decade we will have a new Nice Bridge, and dare I say, a nicer bridge.”

When advocating for a replacement span, Robinson often has referred to witnessing traffic jams on the bridge. He has described the bridge as a national security concern given U.S. 301’s potential as an evacuation route from the Washington, D.C., region.

“I really think the relationships that we establish with our state and federal partners bear fruit, and this is an example of that,” he said.

O’Malley credited Middleton and U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) with championing the bridge and pushing for available funding.

“Together, with the support of local elected officials and federal partners, we are making a significant down payment on a wider, safer and more pedestrian-friendly Nice Bridge,” O’Malley said in a statement announcing the funding. “Southern Maryland residents have long waited for a new bridge, and this $50 million investment brings the new bridge one step closer to reality. There is more work to be done, but I commend the leadership of [Hoyer] and [Middleton] for working with the State to advance this crucial project.”

During an October 2012 meeting between state transportation and county officials, MdTA Director of Capital Planning Dennis N. Simpson declared the bridge the authority’s next top-priority project.

In a follow-up interview, Middleton said it was time to see additional funding for the bridge given the available revenue from statewide toll increases in 2011 and last July. He said he recently requested an additional $50 million for the project.

“Studies are good, but you just need to see something concrete to demonstrate the authority is serious about it,” Middleton said. “I think the $50 million is very evident and demonstrates that the authority is very serious about this project. When you start to see land acquisition, you’re starting to see the shovel put into the ground.”

He said the funding should help assuage those skeptical of whether the bridge is truly a state priority, noting that many rolled their eyes in reaction to the $6 million that was announced last summer.

“People keep saying we’ll never see a bridge in our lifetime, and I keep telling them we will,” Middleton said.

Roughly 17,900 vehicles cross the bridge daily, a total that is projected to rise to 37,000 by 2030. Planning for the bridge was completed in fall 2012.

As planned, the new four-lane span will be built parallel to and north of the existing bridge, which will be removed once the replacement bridge is completed.

The new bridge will include a two-way bicycle and pedestrian path, with a designated path on each shore directing cyclists and pedestrians to the appropriate outside shoulder along U.S. 301.

“Improving our infrastructure and ensuring that it is safer and more user-friendly is critically important to spurring economic growth in our communities,” Hoyer said in the statement. “I thank the O’Malley-Brown Administration for making the bridge replacement a top priority and look forward to working with the Administration, the Maryland Congressional Delegation, Senator Mac Middleton and others to see this replacement through to completion.”