Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday that the state will spend $5 million and up to four years studying where to put — and how to pay for — a possible third span across the Chesapeake Bay.
The study is the first in a multi-stage process to seek federal funding. It would likely be many years before any construction could begin, if ever.
The congested and aging Bay Bridge has vexed transportation planners for decades. Studies show that the bridge, if properly maintained, should remain structurally sound until 2065. But increased traffic is projected to cause daily 13-mile backups by 2040 unless a new span is built. A new span could cost up to $6.85 billion, and would require other road network upgrades.
The governor declined to speculate whether engineers would suggest a new span alongside the two existing ones or elsewhere in the state, but he said the process would involve a lot of public input.
"We'll have experts taking a look at that," Hogan said. "I won't be governor when the bridge is complete, but at least I'm the one who got it started."
The Maryland Transportation Authority Board, which oversees the Bay Bridge, voted last week to launch the study. Hogan announced its decision Tuesday.
"You'll never get a new bridge if you don't start with this," he said. "Nobody had the guts to do it."
The Bay Bridge — formally, the Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge — carries U.S. 50 and 301 from Anne Arundel County on the Western Shore across the Chesapeake to Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore.
The first, two-lane span opened in 1952 to replace ferries. The second span opened in 1973, primarily to help vacationers from Baltimore and Washington get to Ocean City and other beaches.
The Bay Bridge carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day. State engineers expect that to grow to 92,000 by 2040.
Hogan is the latest politician to attempt to solve the costly problem. But his administration is the first to commission a study under the National Environmental Policy Act to review the environmental consequences of a new span.
"The study is critical," said state Sen. John C. Astle, an Annapolis Democrat who has tried to get the General Assembly to fund such a study. He called the bridge an "impossible problem."
"The study will answer the question once and for all about where the bridge might go and whether this could happen," Astle said. "The problem is, when we look at the potential solutions, they all are going to cost tremendous amounts of money."
In 2013, the legislature financed a two-year, $1 million study by the Maryland Transportation Authority to determine how long the current bridge would last and estimate how much it would cost to add a third span.
It took years to persuade lawmakers to commission that review. It came eight years after a task force convened by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. came up with four potential places to build one: alongside the existing bridge; a crossing farther north between Baltimore and Kent counties; a 10-mile bridge farther south between Calvert and Talbot counties; or between Calvert and Dorchester counties.
Each option came with complications. Some were particularly costly. Others required disturbing sensitive wetlands or seizing a lot of private land.
Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., an Ocean City Democrat who served on Ehrlich's task force, pushed for the study two years ago. He celebrated Hogan's announcement Tuesday.
"We never got this far before," Mathias said.
Mathias found out recently that he will become a grandfather next year. On Tuesday, he took out a sonogram picture of his future grandchild from his pocket and snapped a photo of it with the two existing spans in the background.
"Hopefully, that child will see this new bridge built one day," he said.
Hogan also unveiled a new Maryland flag-themed license plate, which he said he had a role in designing.
The new, standard-issue plates will replace the War of 1812 plates commissioned under his predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley. They are to be available beginning Sept. 26.