Queen Anne’s County leaders want Maryland transportation officials to close the ramps on Route 50 to all but local traffic as congestion caused by Bay Bridge construction worsens for residents on Kent Island.
Commissioner James Moran said he and other county leaders proposed last year that state officials close specific ramps on Route 50 to discourage people returning from beach vacations from driving off Route 50 and clogging up Route 18 and other roads used primarily for local traffic.
The county tried stationing deputy sheriffs by exits to act as a deterrent for people looking for a short cut, but Moran said it hasn’t worked. He would like to see the roads limited to local drivers.
“We would give all the citizens in Queen Anne’s County decals for their cars and if you were a citizen, you can access the ramp, and if you were not then you would have to stay on Route 50,” Moran said Sunday.
State officials rejected the plan as not possible under state law and possibly unconstitutional.
Traffic has worsened this month with the start of a two-year, $27 million redecking project on the westbound span of the Bay Bridge. Route 50 now sees traffic backups beyond the summer months.
“The situation is bad and is extremely bad for our businesses and our citizens,” Moran said.
By early Sunday afternoon, Maryland Transportation Authority officials put out social media notices that the backup on westbound Route 50 stretched 10 miles. Wind warnings were in effect on the bridge as a storm swept through the region.
The five lanes on the twin Bay Bridge spans have changed to three lanes as part of the restoration project. The project is supposed to remove all but the bridge skeleton to replace decking and seal the bridge decking. Steel rail posts on the side of the bridge will also be replaced. The 4.3-mile project is expected to continue until 2021.
To ease eastbound congestion, state transportation officials have switched to electronic tolls and put a two-way traffic pattern in place on the westbound span, called “contraflow.” But the pattern slows traffic and makes the congestion worse on the Eastern Shore.
Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan said he would push his administration to do everything it can to speed the project’s completion but called traffic congestion inevitable. He has launched a study of building a third bay crossing and has advocated putting it at the same site, connecting Sandy Point with Kent Island.
Last year, the Queen Anne’s County Board of Commissioners proposed closing off ramps as part of its Beach to Bridge Traffic Management Plan.
“With the increasing popularity of traffic apps such as Waze, which utilizes user information to constantly adjust routes, returning traffic beach traffic is being redirected further into the collector and local roads off of Rt. 50 thus creating traffic jams deeper into our communities,” according to a copy of the proposal on the county website.
In response, the state agency said it would “work with local officials on local traffic relief options that are allowable under the law,” Dave Abrams, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, wrote Sunday in an email.
Last summer, the agency monitored traffic and launched a public awareness campaign to advise drivers to stay on Route 50 instead of using side roads, Abrams wrote.
The county’s request was also reviewed by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which released an opinion saying that though there are situations that require limited access, such as instances of severe weather, closing the ramps to all but local drivers is not possible under state law.
Turning away “non-local traffic” also could raise possible “constitutional” and “civil rights issues,” Abrams wrote.
In the backup Sunday, license plates from other states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware were spotted on local roads.
Moran said that if drivers plug in an alternative route to the Bay Bridge with apps like Google Maps or Waze to Bay Bridge, they can be sent on Route 18, which parallels Route 50 from east of Queenstown to Stevensville.
There are also signs all along the roadway that advise drivers to stay on Route 50.
But intersections were flooded for hours and roads were jammed with people attempting to drive past one another.
“We don’t want contraflow at all. We understand that we have to deal with backups but you have to make it where we can survive,” Moran said.
Residents of Kent Island and Grasonville, where a quarter of the Queen’s Anne County population lives, are being forced to adjust to delays in school bus schedules and emergency services to the point that helicopters can now be used more frequently to assist with critical health incidents, Moran said.
“If Route 18 is jammed up, nobody is getting any services,” Moran said. “Queen Anne’s County is not saying in any stretch of the imagination that we don’t want any backups, we want the bridge fixed.”
Moran said more local input into the state project is needed. For example, his county monitors how many cars use the roadways in the area and the traffic patterns due to years of summer traffic.
In addition, the county plans on requesting more information on the proposal for the Bay Bridge project to understand what the priorities were when the plan was first set.