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Contraflow controversy at the Bay Bridge: Which side is getting the worst of summer traffic?

Summer traffic congestion on the Bay Bridge can make life miserable for people who live near both ends, Kent Island on the east and the Broadneck peninsula on the west.

But state Sen. Ed Reilly thinks Friday nights are more miserable on his side of the Chesapeake Bay lately. He blames a “systematic” failure by the Maryland Transportation Authority to manage the contraflow lane — the lane set up to carry extra eastbound motorists over the westbound lane during peak travel times.

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In an Aug. 4 letter, the Anne Arundel Republican called on Gov. Larry Hogan to address the Maryland Transportation Authority’s management of bridge traffic.

“This is a conscious, in my opinion, a conscious decision by the management of the Bay Bridge to benefit the Eastern Shore to the detriment of everyone else in the state heading toward the beach,” said Reilly, a Crofton Republican whose district includes the communities affected by bridge traffic.

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Officials with the authority, which oversees the two-span Bay Bridge and other toll facilities in Maryland, rejected Reilly’s characterization, saying decisions are based on traffic predictions and factors like weather not by county.

Jim Ports, executive director of the authority, said that eastbound traffic using the contraflow lane is only separated from westbound vehicles by a solid white line — and said its use requires caution.

“It only takes a few seconds across that line to have a head-on collision,” Ports said.

Bay Bridge traffic, particularly during summer beach season, can cause miles-long traffic backups on both sides of the bridge. Fridays, it’s usually on the Western Shore as people head to the beach. Sundays, it’s the Eastern Shore as people head home. Residents on both sides say it traps them in their homes.

It was worse over the winter months as the state rushed to finish a redecking project on the westbound span. The work was completed ahead of schedule.

Reilly said the issue now is that MDTA officials are waiting for traffic to back up about three miles before opening the contraflow lane to eastbound traffic. He said the state should not let congestion extend more than one mile, to around exit 30, before opening the lane.

Reilly pointed to July 31 as an example.

The three lanes on the westbound span had minimal congestion, but the two lanes on the eastbound span were clogged with traffic that backed up for miles. He would like to see the contraflow lane opened to eastbound traffic in the summer, beginning Fridays around 10 a.m. and extending through Saturdays around 2 p.m., though he admitted a set schedule should allow for flexibility when handling accidents, inclement weather and other issues.

“It makes no sense that they would penalize the Broadneck for the benefit of Kent Island, to that extent, weekend after weekend after weekend,” Reilly said.

According to MDTA traffic data from 2013, an average of 985 more cars per hour traveled eastbound than westbound on Fridays and Saturdays from the last weekend in June to the last weekend in August.

The last Friday in August of that year featured nearly 2,000 more cars per hour traveling eastbound, according to MDTA’s data.

Ports said the purpose of the contraflow lane is to move excess of traffic flowing eastbound or westbound as needed. Instead of a set schedule, as Reilly requested, the contraflow lane’s use is dependent on traffic predictions and patterns. Ports said that any time the authority determines eastbound traffic may back up, like on summer weekends, the lane is used for travel in that direction.

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As for Reilly’s July 31 example, Ports said there were specific reasons that contraflow wasn’t used on this day. Inclement weather, including rain and wind, made conditions unsafe for contraflow lane traffic to be traveling against the flow of the other two lanes.

Ports said that, in some cases, eastbound travel in the contraflow lane may even contribute to backup. He explained that eastbound travelers in the lane drive slower than normal out of an abundance of caution for the westbound vehicles that are traveling mere feet away, and said that congestion can occur when the contraflow lane merges with other eastbound traffic at the end of the bridge.

Patricia Lynch, president of the Broadneck Council of Communities and member of the Bay Bridge Reconstruction Advisory Group, said traffic overflows onto residential roads along the Broadneck peninsula forcing residents to live in “lockdown.” It is made worse by people on their way to Sandy Point State Park next to the bridge.

“We’re desperate to have this thing reversed. We want to have priority given to us on Fridays,” Lynch said.

She added that residents are worried about the traffic they may encounter on their drive home if they were to venture west into Annapolis on weekends.

Kent Island residents also are concerned with mobility restrictions caused by bridge traffic.

Sen. Steve Hershey, who represents Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, wrote in an email that traffic on the bridge could threaten the health and safety of his constituents. He wrote that emergency medical centers on Kent Island are not sufficient, and the medical evacuation unit that operates out of Queen Anne’s County is under consideration to be shut down.

“So, sure we are very concerned, that multi-mile traffic jams are a threat to the emergency response not only on Kent Island but throughout the entire mid-shore,” he wrote.

Reilly disagreed, and in his letter to Hogan called for a “new and serious study” of the emergency medical services available to Eastern Shore residents.

It will likely require more than shifting the timing of the contraflow lane to solve the bridge’s traffic problems.

Average daily traffic on summer weekends in 2017 was nearly 60% higher than on non-summer weekdays, according to the MDTA’s Chesapeake Bay Crossing Study. The $5 million study, paid for by toll dollars, showed that average daily traffic is expected to continue increasing, prompting the state to consider alternative crossings to alleviate congestion.

Ports said that population growth in communities living in close proximity to the bridge has pushed its traffic capacity to the limit. Anne Arundel County’s population in 2019 was nearly 580,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1980, that number was just over 370,000, marking an increase of well over 50%.

The bridge’s physical structure hasn’t been updated to account for this increased demand. The eastbound structure was built in 1952, and its westbound structure in 1973, according to a life cycle cost analysis from the MDTA. The state recently removed the toll plaza on the Western Shore as part of the move to all electronic-tolls.

By 2040, the MDTA expects there will be “significant queues” every day of the week during summer months, extending up to 13 miles in the eastbound direction.

To accommodate these increased traffic demands, eight additional lanes would be required on the bridge, costing over $6 billion and significantly limiting bridge capacity during construction, per the report. The state is studying sites for a new bridge, but is focusing on an additional span at the current site.

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