Maryland transportation officials launched a task force yesterday to examine the politically and environmentally thorny question of whether to build a new bridge or tunnel across the Chesapeake Bay over the next few decades -- and if so, where.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan's announcement came as he released a study projecting that traffic on the Bay Bridge is expected to increase by more than 40 percent by 2025.
He said motorists can expect decades of "more traffic, more congestion, more accidents, more incidents that will basically create huge backups."
It is unlikely that any solution would come much earlier than the mid-2020s. Flanagan noted that the replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge will have taken 19 years to plan and build by the time the project is completed in 2008. A new bay crossing could face far more significant environmental hurdles than the Potomac River bridge.
But Flanagan said it's time to take the "next step" by convening a task force to study proposals, hold hearings and educate the public about the need for more capacity.
"It is a search for feasible alternatives," he said.
To head the panel, Flanagan selected Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stolzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, and O. James Lighthizer, a Democrat who served as state transportation secretary and was Anne Arundel County executive.
Members of the task force have not been chosen. Flanagan said they are expected to begin work in the spring. Their charge is to prepare a list of options rather than to make a single recommendation. Any final decision would be made by state and federal transportation officials after a full environmental impact study.
Choosing a site for a new bridge or tunnel would be difficult. Alternatives that have been mentioned in the past include a crossing from Baltimore County to Kent County, a link between Calvert and Dorchester counties, or a third bridge near the current two spans.
While Eastern Shore residents are highly dependent on the bridge, many are ambivalent about the potential of a new crossing to further change the character of the region. Since the Bay Bridge opened in 1952, there has been an undercurrent of grumbling that it was the worst thing that ever happened to the Shore.
Residents of Kent Island say they are overwhelmed by the overflow of summer weekend traffic onto local roads. Some complain that they feel like prisoners in their homes.
The parts of Dorchester closest to Calvert are home to sensitive wetlands. A crossing at Kent County could open the Upper Shore to more growth and bring urban Baltimore to its doorstep.
Stoltzfus said the state needs to be active.
"It's vitally important in three areas I see -- in commerce, in tourism and commuter traffic," he said.
The report released yesterday projects a grim picture of conditions on the bridge until capacity can be added. It said the current average summer Saturday traffic of 94,700 vehicles would grow to 134,850 by 2025 -- a 42 percent increase. The study predicted the hours of weekend congestion would go from six hours to twelve. Weekday traffic is expected to rise 41 percent.
Flanagan said the administration hopes to involve environmental organizations in the task-force process.