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Let the Eastern Shore be

The Maryland Transportation Authority recently concluded the public comment period of its study concerning traffic congestion at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a $5 million review looking at traffic, costs, environmental impact and the prospects for locating a new crossing anywhere from Havre de Grace to Southern Maryland. If the state might be willing to add another comment to the pile, we offer, after much discussion (and an infinitesimal fraction of that seven-digit price tag and 3-year time frame), the ideal and most cost-effective solution.

It is simply this: Don’t add capacity to the existing spans, not a single, solitary lane mile. The last thing Maryland needs is to further unleash sprawl development across the Eastern Shore, potentially destroying some of the most scenic and pristine land and waterfront the state has left. The periodic bottleneck on U.S. 50 between Sandy Point and Kent Island may be the best thing the region has going for it — add further capacity, and Kent Island becomes more like Long Island (or perhaps Dorchester or Somerset counties get their own traffic quagmire if a southern crossing is created).

Gov. Larry Hogan tossed off a one-liner at a recent Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Cambridge that deserves scrutiny. He said his administration has “put local planning authority back in the hands of local government where it belongs.” He was bragging about how he has largely neutered the Maryland Department of Planning and his predecessor’s efforts to encourage smart growth and hold counties accountable if they fail to meet that mandate. But he was also dead wrong — the state’s role in planning, whether it intends to have one or not, remains deep and broad. The MdTA’s Chesapeake Bay study is a case in point.

There’s virtually nothing an Eastern Shore county can do that can have as profound an impact on local development as state-level decisions about infrastructure — not only where to build something as momentous as a $1 billion-plus bridge but how much to invest in schools, water and sewage capacity, or decisions about utility rates, septic systems, manure disposal, landfill licensing and on and on. There is no abandoning the state’s role in local planning, there is only the possibility of making decisions at the state level so blindly that it’s done without an awareness of local impact.

As much as we sympathize with commuters facing increasingly long delays at the Bay Bridge, there is a steep price to pay to temporarily relieve them. “If you build it, they will come” isn’t just a line from a movie, it’s an accurate description of what happens after road and bridge construction. Like water seeking the path of least resistance, development is bound to follow, and with it, destruction of wetlands and forests and loss of water, soil and air quality. Look at phosphorus and nutrient levels in Maryland’s rivers and streams — the most polluted are generally to be found nearest people. Better to concentrate growth in the region’s urban centers, redeveloping land already lost to development and preserve pristine land for future generations.

Wait, some will say, isn’t that easy to say in Baltimore, ground zero of development? What about jobs on the Eastern Shore? In fact, a lot of Eastern Shore residents feel the same way. That local planning line may play well at a MACO meeting, where county officials are hungry for tax revenue, but there’s a reason Shore residents sport those “No life west of the Chesapeake Bay” bumper stickers. And then there’s the matter of all those folks who make a living in seafood, marinas, hotels, restaurants or tourism who depend on a clean Chesapeake. A study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimated the boating industry in Maryland alone was a $2 billion business with 32,000 jobs.

We should keep the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge safe, rebuild the existing spans, if necessary, or raise the tolls to finance maintenance, but otherwise, keep the status quo rather than expand capacity for the benefit of developers or others itching to turn priceless natural wonders like the Blackwater River or Fishing Bay into waste disposal sites. It isn’t ignoring the interests of the Eastern Shore to protect the Eastern Shore, it’s saving its environment, economy, way of life and future.

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