Cashless tolling will begin Thursdays and Fridays at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to address traffic delays stemming from a $27 million rehabilitation project on the westbound span, Maryland transportation officials announced Tuesday.
For the duration of the two-year redecking project, the Maryland Transportation Authority will use cashless tolling at the bridge from noon to 10 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, spokeswoman Erin Henson wrote in an email Tuesday.
“With greater than expected volume on the bridge, we are adding the cashless hours ... to do what we can to keep traffic flowing and reduce congestion on the bridge,” Henson said.
The move comes after drivers experienced significant delays on Route 50 Friday night, prompting state transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn to order the authority to suspend tolls for up to two hours to resolve the backup, an unusual step that only occurred once before in March 2018 during a severe storm.
Rates will remain the same for E-ZPass users and drivers who use cash, Henson said, but those who do not have an E-ZPass will be sent a bill in the mail each time they pass through tolls. She said 74% of Bay Bridge drivers use E-ZPass.
MdTA workers who normally collect money from drivers will instead provide customer service support by waving drivers through plazas and answering questions, Henson said.
County Executive Steuart Pittman called the announcement a “good short-term step." Pittman criticized transportation officials for the delays Monday.
“This will help, but people still need to slow down at the toll booths, which will create traffic backups,” Pittman said. “The next step is installing all electronic booths where cars will maintain their speed.”
If traffic still backs up on Thursdays and Fridays, the authority plans to implement two-way traffic on the westbound span at reduced speeds — 25 to 35 mph — for short periods, weather permitting, Henson wrote in the email. During those times, MdTA police will be enforcing slower speeds and limit commercial truck traffic to the eastbound span only.
“It’s really important for drivers to remember — as we’ve said throughout the summer — there will be major delays to this project,” Henson said. “There is no way to avoid delays.”
The authority kicked off the redecking project on the westbound span on Sept. 26. It’s scheduled to last until 2021. The project will replace the bridge decking, make deck repairs, seal the bridge deck and replace existing lane-use signal gantries and the steel rail posts on the side of the bridge.
The project will be halted for Thanksgiving and during the summer, resuming in the fall.
In addition to alternating traffic patterns when backups take place, the State Highway Administration also will supply Coordinated Highways Action Response Team vehicles to respond to incidents in the area, Henson wrote.
In April, the authority announced it would roll out all-electronic tolling — where drivers travel at highway speeds through tolling places — in phases at its facilities.
On Thursday, officials announced the changes would begin Oct. 16 at Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on Route 40 over the Susquehanna River and the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Interstate 696 over the Patapsco River on Oct. 30. Henson said 93% of drivers on Hatem and 80% of drivers on Key already use E-ZPass.
To implement all-electronic tolling at the Bay Bridge, Henson wrote that the toll plazas must be demolished, pavement reconstructed and overhead gantries installed. Those changes are not part of the redecking project, Henson said.