Spanning the Bay One More Time
Jul 03, 2013 05:05PM
● By Anonymous
Now, traffic jams on summer weekends and even rush hours can rival those waits from the bad old pre-bridge days. “On a Friday afternoon, traffic gets backed up from the toll gate to 97,” state Sen. John Astle of Annapolis told a Senate committee earlier this year. The traffic is so bad, he says, many motorists bail out of Route 301/50 to find an alternate route through the historic capital, gridlocking Bladen and College streets.
“The longer we wait, the worse the problem is going to become,” Astle says. “We’ve been kicking this can for a long time. We need another crossing of the Bay.” Astle, who represents Annapolis, and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, the Republican leader whose Eastern Shore district includes Queen Anne’s County, have been advocating for at least five years to have an environmental study examine a third crossing of the bay. But their efforts have been as stalled as Sunday traffic on Kent Island. Their bill to force an environmental study of a third bay crossing actually got to the Senate floor last year—after three unsuccessful attempts in previous years—but it failed by a margin of 20-27. “The environmental community doesn’t want to see this bridge happen,” Pipkin says. “There’s no way that a 22-mile backup (on Route 50) can be environmentally friendly either.”
According to the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs all the state’s toll facilities, talk of building a Bay Bridge began as early as 1908. The location—the narrowest section of the upper bay—was determined in the 1930s, but because of World War II, construction didn’t start until 1949. The second bridge was started in 1969, costing $148 million, three times as much as the first span.
While the Great Recession has somewhat slowed the growth of traffic, the numbers in a 2004 study of the bridges show a pretty bleak future. The number of vehicles that crossed the bridge then was 25 million per year, but that is expected to grow by 10 million over the next decade.
The five lanes of the existing bridges can still only handle 1,500 vehicles per lane per hour. The greater the volume, the greater the likelihood of rear-end collisions and worse, shutting down precious lanes to remove disabled vehicles on bridges that have no shoulders.
Astle and Pipkin are not even pressing for building a third span now—although that’s what they would ultimately like to see. They just want the Maryland Transportation Authority to conduct the environmental impact study that is required by the National Environmental Policy Act. This comprehensive study alone is estimated to cost up to $35 million and take up to five years, just to determine whether and where a new bridge should be built.
“I think this (study) will eventually settle the argument,” Astle says. And if the decision is not to build a third span, “those of us who live on either side are just going to have to suck it up.” Perhaps surprisingly, it is the Democrats who oppose the expense of the study, even though the money would come out of the tolls paid by the drivers who use the bridge. “I think this is a fiscally imprudent thing to do,” says Prince George’s Sen. Paul Pinsky. Montgomery County Sen. Richard Madaleno said to accommodate any increased capacity on the bridges, “You’re going to have to build (approach) roads that will be an enormous fight.”
Even Anne Arundel’s own Sen. James Ed DeGrange, chairman of the transportation budget subcommittee, objects to a study for a third span, saying a new bay crossing is not part of MdTA’s construction plans.
Harold Bartlett, executive director of MdTA, opposed the Astle-Pipkin plan yet again this year. “The MdTA does not have funding of that magnitude, and if they had it, this would not be the highest priority,” Bartlett says. Another complication is that under existing state law, any new bridge “would have to be approved by a majority of the counties” on the Eastern Shore, even if it were built where the current bridges are, Bartlett says. In the past, a third span has been proposed at three additional locations: from Baltimore County into Kent County, from Calvert County to Dorchester County, or from St. Mary’s County into Somerset County. “It seems the biggest problem is that nobody wants it in their backyard,” says Senate Finance Chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton, who voted against the bill in committee.
Astle concedes, “They’re not going to let us build through the wetlands.” So the site of the current bridges “is the only place you’re going to do it.”
One solution is possible in the distant future, Bartlett says: “A life-cycle analysis of the existing bridges.” In other words, studying how long the bridges will actually last, even with adequate maintenance “to maximize system preservation.” If the older two-lane bridge actually merited replacement, then that would be the time to consider building a new structure of three or four lanes, Astle says. The existing road structure would need to be widened, as well.
“If the department gave the go-ahead today, it would take 20 years,” says Sen. Richard Colburn, who represents the Mid- Shore. By the time any study is finished, “it will be time to close one of those spans.”
“By the time this gets done, I will no longer be in office, whether the voters make that decision or I do,” says the 70- year-old Astle, who is serving his fifth term in the state Senate. “I may not live to see this.”