As Maryland scouts locations for new Chesapeake Bay Bridge, hope and opposition emerge

Trey Hill uses satellites and precision farming technology to maximize his wheat, corn and soybean yields here in Kent County. If the planned third span across the Chesapeake Bay landed here, he says, it would destroy the natural barrier between Baltimore and his quiet, 300-acre farm.

Farther south on the Eastern Shore, Danny Thompson wants to preserve that type of quaint appeal. But as the director of economic development in Somerset County, he sees a new bridge as a potential boon, bringing more residents and tourism.

Suzanne Konigkramer, a Kent Islander who commutes across the two spans of the current bridge daily to work in Annapolis, likes the idea of a third span to alleviate gridlock. Just please, she asks: find somewhere else to put it.

“I just don’t see a third bridge here at all,” she says.

There has been no decision on where to place the third span that Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed across the bay. The results of a $5 million environmental impact study are still years away.

But already, Marylanders on both sides of the bay are lining up to support or oppose a new crossing — depending on where it would be built. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees the state’s bridges and tunnels, has received more than 500 comments from the public on the subject.

“It would absolutely be premature to be discussing a preferred location at this point,” Kevin Reigrut, the authority’s executive director, said last week. “MDTA is willing to consider any and all possible alternatives that will reduce the congestion that is going to occur in the absence of a solution.”

More than 70,000 vehicles per day take Routes 50 and 301 across the two spans of the current crossing — together, they make up the Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge — which links Sandy Point on the Western Shore with Kent Island on the Eastern Shore. Those spans, built in 1952 and 1973, are expected to remain structurally sound for nearly another 50 years. But if traffic levels grow as projected, the state says, they could see daily 13-mile backups as soon as 2040.

Hogan announced his study in 2016, and said it could take up to four years. A new span could cost more than $10 billion, Reigrut said.

The state has considered possible locations for a bay crossing many times over the years. In 1966, when officials were planning the second span, consultants commissioned by the state focused on three options: a northern crossing between Baltimore and Kent counties, the eventual location alongside the first span from Sandy Point to Kent Island, and a southern crossing from Calvert County to Dorchester County.

A task force studying locations for a third span in 2004 found that a northern crossing into Kent County would require substantial land-taking, a bridge into Talbot County would need to be more than twice as long as the current one, and Dorchester County’s wetlands presented too many environmental concerns to be viable.

Hogan’s study is the first conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act. Hogan spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill called it a “critical step” to determine the best course of action.

“If we do not seek solutions to alleviate congestion across and around the bridge, the heavy traffic in the region will only continue to get worse,” she said.

Advocates of a third span say it would ease traffic on the current ones, better link the region and stimulate the Eastern Shore’s economy.

Some residents and business owners agree and want it built, just not near them.

Others don’t want another one at all.

The environment is a chief concern. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit focused on restoring the health of the bay, has written a 10-page letter to Reigrut raising concerns about the environmental impacts of a third bridge.

The foundation, which has 94,000 members in Maryland, encouraged the transportation authority to protect the bay’s natural resources and consider the state’s clean-water and pollution-limiting commitments as it weighs any new bridge.

“The study should not reject alternatives to a new crossing out of hand,” wrote Erik Fisher, the foundation’s land use planner and assistant director.

Reigrut said the state is considering a “no-build” option.

The foundation noted that previous projections of future traffic have been reduced over time. In 2004, for example, the task force projected that 135,000 vehicles per day would cross the bridge by 2025. Three years ago, the state adjusted that projection to 92,800 vehicles per day by 2040 — “less than half the original projected increase over nearly twice the time,” Fisher wrote.

The foundation “recognizes that traffic congestion at the Bay Bridge can result in delays during peak travel periods that many Marylanders consider unacceptable,” Fisher wrote.

“We are also cognizant that a new crossing could have profound impacts on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the communities that call it home.”

At the current bay crossings, the approach roads are already gridlocked on many summer days. Konigkramer, the Kent Island woman, says backups at the Severn River Bridge in Annapolis are often worse.

“Somewhere else can have this nasty traffic,” she said. “We’re just overtaxed.”

Kurt Beall is one of the few who actually benefits from that gridlock. Drivers sometimes pop in for a burger at his Heroes Pub in Annapolis to wait it out.

Nevertheless, he supports the proposal to build a third bridge. He’d like to see it built in Southern Maryland, but thinks a new span at the current crossings is more likely, for economic reasons.

“I just don’t see them having the money” to build it elsewhere, he said.

Thompson, executive director of the quasi-governmental Economic Development Commission in Somerset, said a bridge to the state’s southernmost county could help balance its bucolic appeal with an influx of new residents and visitors.

Keeping development from swamping the county would be imperative, he said, but local and state officials could manage it with proper zoning and regulation.

“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “We just need more people. It’s a critical mass situation.”

Bob Greenlee, managing director of SVN Miller Commercial Real Estate’s Chesapeake branch in Easton, said building a Baltimore-centric bridge would be misguided, given growth in Southern Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia.

If the state could manage the environmental impact, Greenlee said, a crossing between Cove Point in Calvert County and Taylors Island in Dorchester County could create a more efficient connection from Virginia and Washington to Ocean City.

“There could be a really strong argument for that,” he said.

Dorchester County Manager Jeremy D. Goldman cautioned that any Taylors Island crossing would run into land-use problems at the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The county council hasn’t taken a position on a third crossing, but Goldman called it “exceedingly unlikely” to be built in Dorchester.

“It may be the shortest distance land-to-land,” he said. “But the land isn’t conducive.”

That part of the state will be the first to face problems with sea-level rise and storm surge, noted Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association.

“Why you’d want to run a bridge in the lowest part of the Eastern Shore — it makes no sense,” he said. “More development is not what the Eastern Shore needs.”

Any new span will face significant opposition from the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and other conservation groups. Many oppose a new crossing, no matter where it’s built.

“With sensible planning, you don’t need an additional bridge,” said Joe Hickman, president of the conservancy’s board.

The Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance has distributed yard signs to members that say “NO BAY BRIDGE TO KENT.”

“We want people to come here,” said Janet Christensen-Lewis, the group’s director. “We just don’t want the hordes.”

Hill, the Tolchester farmer, sees any crossing there as a threat to the Shore’s fertile soil.

“It’s not my wheelhouse,” he said. “I would just encourage them not to bring it into a rural area.”

Judy Gifford owns St. Brigid’s Farm, a 60-acre, 200-cow dairy operation in Kennedyville. She said the Eastern Shore farmland might look ripe for a new bridge crossing, but that environment is what makes it so valuable to those who call it home.

“We like being in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “To destroy that so people can get to the beach faster? It’s a 1966 solution to a 2018 problem. … It’s ludicrous to permanently mar our landscape for their convenience.”

The Langenfelders, a family of pig farmers who own the nearby Grand View Farm, have already relocated twice to elude creeping development. Beginning in Rosedale in Baltimore County, they moved to Howard County in 1956, when Interstate 95 was planned through part of their farm, Pat Langenfelder said.

Then Columbia was built, bringing suburban sprawl to their doorstep once again. They moved to Kent County in 1988, setting up their 650-sow, farrow-to-finish swine farm in Kennedyville.

“We’ve done it already,” said Kristen Nickerson, Langenfelder’s daughter. “We certainly don’t want to be pushed out and move again. Then where do we go?”

The Eastern Shore counties have an upper hand in any negotiations, due to a state law that gives them the power to collectively veto any crossing by a majority vote. An attempt by state Sen. Edward Reilly to strip them of that power was shelved without a vote earlier this month.

“Local jurisdictions shouldn’t have the ability to say yes or no over a bill that affects millions of people across the state of Maryland,” the Anne Arundel County Republican said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic supports the construction of a new bridge.

“More capacity across the bay is critically important not only for transportation and congestion-relief, but for the economic health of the Eastern Shore as well,” spokeswoman Ragina Cooper Averella said.

John L. Seidel, director of the Center for Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown, has studied the bridge idea, “to the extent you can, given the sort of amorphous nature.”

He said the center has concluded that a bridge in Kent County would have a “real negative outcome … for the Upper Eastern Shore in general.”

Fred Ducca managed travel forecasting at the Federal Highway Administration for 27 years. He is now a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education in College Park.

Any bridge generally results in an influx of people using it and subsequent development to serve them, he said. Whether those results are positive or negative is a matter of perspective.

“It’s going to encourage more development — do you want that to occur?” he asked. “It will save people time — do you want that to occur? It will open up the Eastern Shore — do you want that to occur?”

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated state Sen. Edward Reilly’s party affiliation. He is a Republican. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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