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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

A third Chesapeake Bay bridge is no road to the future

I clipped and saved two warnings that experts in vastly different fields made during the past year because, considered together, they reveal the challenges we face and the choices we have to make. And they provide the kind of irony I would find amusing if the situation were not so grim.

First warning: If humans continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current rate, Earth’s atmosphere will warm to disastrous levels as soon as 2040.

Second warning: Without adding a third crossing, motorists on the current spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge could see daily 13-mile backups as soon as 2040.

Let me pin those forecasts together for you: The planet might be burning by 2040, but we will have a new bridge so that even more drivers — thousands more — can get across the Maryland part of the Chesapeake as expeditiously as possible. Sea-level rise? No problem. We’ll just build a really high bridge and have it land on the highest ground available on both ends.

Pardon me while I SMH.

That first warning came from scientists concerned that, without vast changes in how we live, we’re on the way to a global crisis.

The second came from state planners considering the possibility that we would build a third bay bridge connecting the Eastern Shore with the Maryland mainland. Gov. Larry Hogan, a champion of roads, ordered a study of the idea. “I won't be governor when the bridge is complete,” he said, his words suggesting the third span was already a done deal, “but at least I'm the one who got it started.”

Hogan patted himself on the back for pushing for the study. “You'll never get a new bridge if you don't start with this,” he said, sounding in that moment Trumpian. “Nobody had the guts to do it.”

I agree: It takes guts (or maybe 20th Century thinking) to order a $5 million study of another massive road project at a time when we already have too much of everything — cars, trucks, asphalt, housing developments requiring long commutes to work — and the state has joined in regional efforts to curb carbon emissions.

With no apology to the governor or others connected to the real estate business, I find it impossible to even consider a third bay bridge, given what scientists tell us.

The projection about the pace of climate change came from the United Nations’ scientific panel assembled to monitor the Earth’s atmosphere. In October, it issued a dire warning about the planet’s rising temperature. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that, unless we soon make significant reductions in carbon emissions, the Earth could be three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was way back before the Industrial Revolution. That does not sound like much, but the projected scenarios are nightmarish: We essentially have about 20 years to avoid intensifying droughts, food shortages, more poverty throughout the world and a massive climate refugee crisis.

That means we have a long list of shoulds ahead of us.

We should ramp up the production of electric cars and the renewable energy sources to power them. We should discourage further coal mining and the extraction of fossil fuels. We should maintain our present road systems, not expand them. Government at all levels should be seeding more mass transit and fostering a culture for its wider use. Residential and commercial building projects should be limited to areas already developed — remember Smart Growth? — because that would keep people closer to where they work and shop, and to public transportation. We should be pushing carpooling among commuters; there should be incentives for drivers who share their rides to work and school.

And that gets to the heart of the problem with a third Chesapeake Bay bridge. The prospect of it, in the midst of mounting concerns about climate change, symbolizes an almost breathtaking cluelessness about the damage our one-person-per-car/one-person-per-truck driving habits do to the atmosphere. A third bay bridge — even the suggestion of it — perpetuates those habits.

“Our personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Collectively, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas.”

Americans know all about this already. In fact, recent polling shows that seven out of 10 of us believe climate change is happening and affects us personally. That’s a record level of concern, and it comes as a wave of progressive Democrats are insisting on sweeping action to avoid the kind of crisis the U.N. scientists warned us about.

In Maryland, building a third bridge across the Chesapeake takes us backward, not forward. It encourages more development and more driving, not less. The cure for traffic backups is fewer cars and more leaders who keep reminding us about what’s ahead if we do not change our ways.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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