Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot called on Maryland transportation officials Monday to temporarily suspend the Chesapeake Bay Bridge redecking project, citing the disruptive traffic backups the work has caused.
The comptroller sent a letter to Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn and recommended suspending the project through the fall and winter months. Transportation officials currently have scheduled downtime during Thanksgiving and summer months and warned commuters there would be traffic issues.
On the busiest days, traffic has been snarled for up to 12 miles on Route 50, prompting the state to implement cashless tolling and updated traffic patterns to reduce backups.
Franchot said he learned of kids being late to school after buses have been stuck in bridge traffic for hours. He has called the project “poorly planned and executed” and recommended transportation officials use the fall and winter months to reevaluate the bridge repair work to minimize traffic.
“We have to do something otherwise the public is going to lose confidence in state government,” Franchot said.
I think we've seen enough. The whole point of government is to ensure the safety, security and well-being of the people...
Franchot’s recommendation comes a few weeks after five lanes became three on the Bay Bridge — part of a $27 million restoration project by Maryland Transportation Authority. The project will strip away all but the bridge’s skeleton to replace decking and seal the bridge deck. The steel rail posts on the side of the bridge also will be replaced. The work on the 4.3-mile bridge is expected to continue until 2021.
Officials have made several different attempts to curb the disruptive traffic, including temporarily waiving all tolls, and implementing cashless tolling on some days. Still, traffic has stacked up for miles in both directions.
Jim Ports, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, released a statement Monday night saying Franchot’s suggestion would put the work in the middle of peak spring and summer traffic.
“The safety of Marylanders is our top priority, which is exactly why we are taking action on this urgent safety project,” wrote Ports, whose agency oversees Maryland toll facilities.
"Unlike most highway or bridge projects, there are no other easy options or detours around the Bay Bridge, which is why we continue to work closely with local school systems and school bus contractors, employers in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore, and public safety officials from Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s Counties.
He wrote that regardless of timing, construction will require moving the same amount of traffic with 20 percent less of total bridge lanes and 33 percent less of the eastbound lanes without two-way operations.
The comptroller suggested demolishing the toll booths altogether and implementing an electronic tolling system, or considering mass transit options to alleviate the traffic issues in the community. Alternatively, Franchot said, employers could consider offering flexible work schedules that might allow employees to avoid heavy traffic times.
Electronic tolling systems are being installed in October on both the Hatem and Key bridges, but other areas will have to wait. Transportation officials said they plan to make state tolls all-electronic — meaning drivers keep moving at highway speeds — but those projects take time to demolish the booths and set up the new tolling systems.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman agrees with Franchot that the state should move toward all-electronic tolling.
Pittman said he has been kept largely in the dark with developments on the Bay Bridge. He said he’s unsure about whether he agrees with Franchot’s call to suspend the project, because he does not know how urgently the restoration is needed.
He doesn’t think starting up the project in the spring is the best idea, and he’s not sure if it can wait a year.
In the meantime, Pittman said, electronic tolling systems will only help the situation.
“Shutting down a lane for re-decking before implementing the all-electric and variable tolling does nothing but steal precious hours from our lives that we’d much rather spend with our families,” Pittman said on Facebook.