After three years of high-stakes analysis and sometimes-clamorous rhetoric over environmental and community impacts, four possible courses of action remain on the table for dealing with heavy traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge MD aerial

In Maryland, drivers can only cross the Chesapeake Bay on a pair of spans between Annapolis and Kent Island: a two-lane bridge constructed in 1952 and another three-lane span that opened beside it in 1973. 

The Maryland Transportation Authority in August proposed three possible routes for a new span, which would be the third to cross the Bay in the state. The agency also included a so-called “no-build” option — managing the congestion without constructing a new bridge.

Citizens and conservation organizations have reacted with concern over how a new bridge could affect the landscape wherever it touches down.

Maryland’s first Bay Bridge, which opened more than 60 years ago, transformed parts of the rural Eastern shore with increased traffic and sprawl development, both of which have increased over time. Opponents say that a new span, which will cost billions of dollars, will trigger more land conversion in places, where communities don’t want it and the environment will suffer, on both sides of the Bay.

The three proposed routes include adding a span to the existing bridge or building a new one to either the north or south. All would leave the Western Shore from Anne Arundel County.

Critics say that statements made by state officials could undercut a fair consideration of all options, including the “no-build” scenario. Under federal statutes, the lengthy review being led by the MDTA isn’t supposed to be used for “ justifying decisions already made.” But that increasingly seems to be the case, they say.

Although the MDTA plans to make no final decision until 2021, the agency’s head, a former state delegate, has publicly described one of the routes as the “best” alternative: a span running parallel to the two existing bridges. James Ports’ comments came at a Queen Anne’s County Commissioners meeting Aug. 27, the day the options were unveiled.

The next day, Gov. Larry Hogan doubled down on that assessment.

“There is only one option I will ever accept: adding a third span to our existing Bay Bridge,” Hogan said on Twitter. “While the federal process requires multiple proposals, the data is indisputable — this option [at the existing site] would maximize congestion relief and minimize environmental impact,” Hogan added.

Many conservation groups oppose the bridge’s construction, warning that the expanse will trample across environmentally sensitive lands and fuel more urban sprawl on both sides of the Bay. But after Hogan and Ports drew their identical lines in the sand, groups are now expressing fresh doubts about whether the “no-build” alternative will get a fair airing.

Questions about legitimacy

“It’s problematic that the governor has already come out and said he will only support a new span at the existing location,” said Kimberly Golden Brandt, director of the smart growth program with Preservation Maryland. “It raises questions about the legitimacy of the whole process.”

“You don’t preordain the outcome,” said Gary Hodge, vice chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which advocates for mass-transit solutions.

Hogan’s office disputes that characterization of his comments. His preference for the route nearest the existing bridges is supported by the study’s traffic projections, which show it reduces traffic more on the other spans than any of the alternatives, said Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman.

Steuart Pittman, Anne Arundel Co. MD

The Maryland Transportation Authority announced in September three possible routes for a new Bay bridge, all of which would connect to the Bay’s Western Shore in Anne Arundel County, MD. County executive Steuart Pittman, shown here near the site of a proposed route on the Mayo peninsula, called all options “severely disruptive to existing communities and sensitive environmental areas.” 

“The community has the opportunity to provide its input and, as the process moves forward, to review the environmental impacts, the potential costs and how transit options can be incorporated,” Ricci said.

Ports told the Bay Journal that although he and Hogan have made clear where they stand, the decision is not a done deal.

“So, all we’re simply stating are the facts that [the route near the existing spans] provides the most relief,” he said. “We’re not picking it, not predisposed to it. We’re just looking at the numbers. I think you would come up to the same conclusion.”

An environmental law expert said the officials’ comments aren’t likely to get them into any federal hot water, as long as the final decision is informed by the evidence gathered by the study.

Still, whenever public officials publicly back one option over others prematurely, “it does undermine confidence, I think, in the process that what’s going on is a careful look at the alternatives,” said Jim McElfish, an attorney with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.

In Maryland, drivers can only cross the Bay on a pair of spans between Annapolis and Kent Island: a two-lane bridge constructed in 1952 and another three-lane span that opened beside it in 1973. The segment forms part of U.S. Routes 50/301.

The Hogan administration launched the $5 million route study three years ago. Advocates say a new bridge would ease traffic backups during weekday rush hours and summer weekends. The 4-mile bridges are a key chokepoint for tourists driving between the DC and Baltimore areas and popular coastal resort communities, such as Rehoboth Beach, DE, and Ocean City, MD.

Today, drivers heading westbound across the bridge on Sundays in the summer typically face a 1-mile backup, which equates to an hour of sitting in traffic. A 2015 MDTA analysis suggested that westbound traffic could back up 14 miles on such days by 2040, trapping drivers in an 11-hour wait.

In Queen Anne’s County, where the Bay Bridge links up with the Eastern Shore, that congestion often boils over onto secondary roads, said James Moran, a county commissioner. On weekends, residents become prisoners in their own homes.

“You don’t leave your home after 10 a.m.” on Sundays in the summer, said Moran, a supporter of the third span. “If you go out, you’ll have a hard time getting back home because of the traffic.”

Dennis Dare, an Ocean City councilman and former city manager, said a third span would allow maintenance to be performed on one of the other spans without having to force traffic in both directions onto a single bridge.

Building a bridge next to the existing ones is “the only way” to ensure traffic continues to flow smoothly in the future, Dare added. “You could make an argument that the urban sprawl that’s gone into Queen Anne’s isn’t smart growth, but it’s happened and you have to deal with it.”

Options for span

The MDTA began its study with a list of 14 potential bridge corridors, stretching virtually the entire length of state’s Bay shoreline from north to south. None of the routes, including the three that remain, is an exact path. Each marks a swath 2 miles wide from one side to the other where a bridge and approach roads could be built.

Kate Livie, Kent Co. MD

Kate Livie stands by a wetland near her home outside of Chestertown, MD, near one of the three routes proposed for a new Bay crossing. Livie launched a Facebook group called “Stop the Span” as an online gathering place for opponents. 

The northernmost path would extend from state Route 100 in Pasadena down MD Route 177, making its crossing near Gibson Island. It would meet land near the entrance to the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, cross the mouth of the Chester River and intersect with Route 301 south of Centreville in Queen Anne’s County.

The middle route would follow alongside the existing two bridges, departing the Western Shore near Sandy Point Park and ending on Kent Island.

The southernmost route would turn south from Routes US 50/US 301 at or near Davidsonville Road to connect with state Route 214, placing the bridge at the end of 214 on the Mayo Peninsula. It would make landfall on the opposite side of the Bay near St. Michaels in Talbot County. A second bridge would likely have to be built to take it across the Miles River to link up with Route 50 again just north of Easton.

In addition to the problems cited by residents along the current route, the new routes would require enormous infrastructure changes through existing towns and landscapes that do not have major highways running through them. In some places, the routes would travel through farmland and rural communities. In others, they would be challenged to navigate existing corridors already mired in congestion. Both of the alternate paths would transform the shoreline environments where the bridge was placed and have a ripple effect on surrounding land use.

Objections to all three routes have prompted many critics on both sides of the Bay to ask: Is a new span necessary?

The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy urged the MDTA to strongly consider the no-build option, warning that a new bridge would kindle more sprawl on the Delmarva Peninsula. “So why not first try to fix the congestion at the existing Bay Bridge as best we can, prior to making more space for cars to cross?” the nonprofit asked on its Facebook page.

New vehicle technology, not concrete, may solve the traffic problem, said Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect and land-planning activist. Autonomous, or driverless, cars are expected to begin filtering into the marketplace over the next decade. Even the presence of a few such vehicles on roads otherwise filled with human drivers can relieve certain types of traffic snarls, he said, citing recent research.

To invest great amounts of money into a new bridge — as much as $10 billion, according to Ports’ predecessor — is nothing short of “insanity,” Philipsen said.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing that didn’t work before,” he said. “We’ve added capacity for the last 50, 60 years as the default, and we’ve created more congestion as a result. We should have learned our lesson.”

Even if autonomous vehicles become commonplace in the coming decades, Ports said, a third Bay Bridge will still be worthwhile to build. “A bridge like this would not be obsolete. It would be an enhancement to the traffic that would get across that bridge,” he added.

The cost of a new bridge would likely force the state to raise tolls on the crossing. The Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition estimates a jump from $4 to $12. Ports sharply disputes that figure, saying the cost won’t be known until a tolling study is completed.

Impact on landscape

Others cringe at what a new bridge might do to the surrounding landscape.

“Any of the three options will be severely disruptive to existing communities and sensitive environmental areas,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said on Twitter. “All three options could destroy parks along the Chesapeake Bay at a time when we are trying to expand public water access.”

The northern crossing appears to bisect Downs Park, the middle goes through Sandy Point State Park and the southern route could pass through Beverly Triton Nature Park, Pittman said.

If Hogan and the MDTA decide to drive forward with a new bridge, they should consider other options as well, such as an electric ferry and rail, Pittman added.

“If we haven’t figured out how to get cars off the road by the time this bridge gets built, we’ll have much bigger problems to confront than traffic,” he said. “Let’s not build yesterday’s bridge tomorrow.”

The MDTA’s report closes the door to other options as sole solutions, declaring that operational improvements, ferries, new bus routes and rail lines alone wouldn’t remove enough traffic from the existing bridges.

During the second phase of the study, the agency said it will analyze operational improvements — a ferry and bus rapid transit — but only in conjunction with the construction of a new bridge.

Projections show that a rapid-transit bus or rail line would each remove about 1,600 vehicles per day from the existing spans, Ports said. A bridge could remove the same amount of vehicles in an hour. “It takes multimodal resources to try to stop congestion.”

Although no cost analysis has been performed on any of the bridge routes or alternative options, the MDTA is ruling out a rail connection “due to its high costs/impacts,” agency officials said in a PowerPoint presentation adjoining the route announcement.

In Kent County on the Eastern Shore, elected officials expressed relief that Hogan had singled out the Anne Arundel-Queen Anne’s corridor as the best candidate. In the rural county, the prospect of a new Bay bridge is deeply unpopular. Yard signs outside many homes urge “No Bay Bridge to Kent.”

“I agree with Larry Hogan, though I’ll be confident he’ll be long out of office before any of this comes to happening,” said Tom Mason, president of the Kent County Commissioners. He added that he was “a little surprised” by the twists and turns of the proposed Kent route, which depicts the future roadway as crossing the Chester River at its widest point.

Kate Livie, a freelance writer who lives in Kent, launched a Facebook group called “Stop the Span” as an online gathering place for opponents. It has more than 350 members. She opposes a new bridge being built anywhere but sees only one way that will come about.

“The no-build option will be implemented if they don’t have the money to build it,” Livie said.

In his remarks to Queen Anne’s County Commissioners, Ports said that the route next to the existing bridges is the “best alternative,” citing the agency’s analysis of its traffic benefits. The agency’s new analysis shows that summer weekend traffic on the existing two bridges is expected to be 135,300 vehicles a day in 2040 without the third span added next door; with one, that figure falls to 79,700.

Because the state is following the federal National Environmental Policy Act mandates, the agency had to go forward with any possible route that showed a “positive result,” Ports said. Compared with the no-build option, the northern candidate would reduce the number of vehicles during that time to 111,200 while the southern route would result in 104,300, the study found. So, they were retained in the analysis.

“The feds are very careful about making sure it’s not a political process,” Ports said.

The MDTA scheduled several public gatherings in late September and early October to get feedback on the routes. Construction isn’t expected to begin for at least several years after that because of the need for further environmental study and acquiring the funding, officials say. When pressed at the Queen Anne’s meeting about when work might begin, Ports wouldn’t commit to announcing a construction date, declining even to select a decade in which it might occur.

The Eastern Shore counties hold a trump card in the battle over the third span: A law dating back to the 1970s allows counties affected by a new toll bridge to veto the project by a majority vote.

“They’re in a significant position to have the state come to them to have express consent to do a new bridge,” said Hodge, the transit advocate.

He helped write a bill to give Western Shore counties the same power, but it failed in last spring’s legislative session. He plans to give it another try next spring.

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