Study cites need to widen or replace Bay Bridge, but no action expected

Senator: Bay Bridge needs work, but 'what you're talking about is a lot of money.'

The Bay Bridge will be safe for decades to come, but in the next quarter-century it will become a nightmare to drive, with miles-long backups nearly every day in the summer.

It'll be costly, too. Just maintaining the bridge at gridlock standards will cost $3.35 billion over the next 50 years — without any improvement to capacity or traffic flow.

Adding lanes would help, but that could cost as much as $6.85 billion.

Those are among the findings of a study released this week by the Maryland Transportation Authority, the latest attempt to craft a long-term vision for the transportation link that state Sen. John C. Astle calls an "impossible problem."

Yet lawmakers pushing to fix the bridge's woes — whether by adding new lanes or building another bridge — doubt that even the report's grim predictions will spur any action.

"I don't sense there's an appetite to deal with it, because what you're talking about is a lot of money," said Astle, an Annapolis Democrat who pushed for the two-year study.

Built in 1952 as a two-lane bridge — costing $45 million — the Bay Bridge was heralded as a visionary project linking the eastern and western shores of the Chesapeake Bay. A second span with three lanes followed in 1973 for $148 million.

But even as the bridge made travel across Maryland easier, it has vexed commuters, vacationers and state leaders for decades.

Where the bridge once mainly allowed vacationers to go between the Baltimore-Washington region and the Delmarva beaches, it now also carries significant commuter traffic. Jurisdictions on both sides of the bridge have grown in housing, employment and tourism, increasing the demands on the bridge.

Officials agree that the problems are plainly obvious: The bridge spans are old and increasingly congested. But no one can agree on a solution, and the state has no money set aside for expansion.

Sen. Ed Reilly, a Republican whose Anne Arundel district includes the western end of the bridge, said that even armed with a study that shows mounting congestion, "I anticipate that nothing will be done for another five years, in terms of decision-making."

After that, he said, "it will probably take another five or 10 years to complete a project."

Even the leader of the transportation authority offered no timeline or next steps for making a decision.

"I could not even begin to discuss a timeline," said Milton Chaffee, executive director of the authority. "There's so much more we need to do before we even get to that."

The $1.8 million study found that the bridge can be kept in "satisfactory" condition with continued maintenance through 2065.

At that point, the eastbound span will be 113 years old and the westbound span 92 years old.

But by 2040, the backups that occur now mainly on summer weekends will be daily occurrences if more lanes aren't added to the bridge and the sections of U.S. 50 on either end.

More than 70,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day. The study said that by 2040, an average of more than 92,000 vehicles will cross the bridge daily, with more than 125,000 crossing Fridays and Sundays in the summer.

Without improvements, daily eastbound summertime backups could reach 13 miles by 2040 — stretching all the way to Interstate 97.

For westbound drivers in the summer, daily backups could be 3 miles long and Sunday backups could stretch for 14 miles, almost to Wye Mills.

To handle that traffic, the study said, the bridge needs to be expanded from its current five total lanes on two spans to eight lanes total. Options to accomplish that include adding a third span with three lanes, demolishing the eastbound span and replacing it with a new five-lane span, or demolishing both spans and building a new eight-lane bridge. Those options also include widening U.S. 50 on either side of the bridge by one lane.

A less ambitious option would add just one lane — widening the eastbound span from two lanes to three.

The options would cost between $3.89 billion and $6.85 billion — in 2014 dollars. Inflation will raise those estimates, Chaffee said.

The authors of the study didn't indicate a preferred option, noting that issues must be addressed such as "understanding the position of key political and community stakeholders."

"The safety of the bridge is good, and we do realize there is a need to move traffic across the bridge more efficiently," Chaffee said. "We're working to analyze and consider what the next step should be."

Over the years, there have been efforts to build another Chesapeake Bay crossing elsewhere in Maryland — from Baltimore County to the Upper Shore, or from Southern Maryland to the Lower Shore. But those efforts have stalled.

Gov. Larry Hogan declined to comment on the study's findings. His staff issued a statement saying the administration would review it.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which advocates for motorists, praised completion of the study but did not advocate for any one option.

"We recognize that further studies, planning and discussions will need to take place before such a decision is reached," said Ragina Cooper Averella, manager of public and government affairs for AAA.

Reaching a decision can't come fast enough for Astle, who said he has heard from constituents for years about the bridge. Each time there's an accident that shuts it down, or even predictable backups, traffic spills into downtown Annapolis, he said.

"We've got to do something. I wish I had the answer," Astle said.

Reilly said the bridge's woes must be seen not only as a matter of convenience, but commerce.

"Every minute of extra time spent on the Bay Bridge — by commuters, by business vehicles, by residents — is time away from work, family and productivity," he said. "It's an economic issue as much as anything."

But he doesn't expect action soon.

"We only act immediately when there is a crisis," he said.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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