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Missing from Chesapeake Bay Bridge debate: impact of climate change | COMMENTARY

Flooding along Dorchester Street near the inlet in Ocean City, Maryland in September of 2019. Rising tides caused by man-made climate change are expected to make such events more frequent in the years to come. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun).
Flooding along Dorchester Street near the inlet in Ocean City, Maryland in September of 2019. Rising tides caused by man-made climate change are expected to make such events more frequent in the years to come. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun). (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Beginning Wednesday, the Maryland Transportation Authority and the Federal Highway Administration are hosting a series of public “testimony” sessions, both virtually and in-person, to review the environmental effects of a third span of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge, more commonly known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The MDTA has not been shy about a perceived need for the third crossing, linking Sandy Point on the western shore with Kent Island on the Eastern Shore. Traffic congestion, particularly in the summer when beach-oriented travel is at its peak, is expected to grow, and that’s especially true as the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic dissipate and Ocean City and the Delaware beaches return to historic form as a tourism draw.

But shockingly missing from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is much anticipation about how climate change may fundamentally alter the future and whether it’s in Maryland’s best interest to accommodate and encourage continued growth in the very region of the state most vulnerable to rising tides and worsening storms. What if, for example, major floods are in the future? What if shore communities have inadequately prepared for rising waters, both from the Atlantic Ocean and bay tributaries? What if we are setting ourselves up for a deeper disaster? And what if maintaining some level of cap on traffic provided the most available and cost-effective means to guard against this very real possibility?

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And, finally, what if none of these things is a “what if” at all and that climate change is established science and Maryland is repeatedly failing to look at such fundamental choices as traffic and growth through the lens of this human-made disaster in the making?

Engineers tend to make predictions based on past experience and the bay bridge study smacks of this. There is an anticipation, for example, that even if no additional bridge is built that average weekday trips will grow to 84,276 vehicles per day by 2040, or about 23% above the 2017 level of 68,598, while summer weekend volume will rise from the 118,579 of four years ago to 135,280, or about 14%. The most obvious effect will be travel delays. The bridge already suffers hours of what traffic engineers term failing grades (eastbound summer weekends between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. being the peak). Under the no-build option, that same failing period will get both worse and longer growing to 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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None of these assessments is likely unreasonable if one considers only past traffic patterns. Economic recessions and, most recently, the pandemic have surely slowed and, in some cases, even temporarily halted traffic growth, but it’s probably not going to last forever.

What’s far more troubling is what’s ignored. Experts project that climate change will cause Chesapeake Bay waters to rise by as much as 2.1 feet by 2050 and perhaps 4 feet by 2100. That means not just flooded marshes and marinas, it means a lot of whole communities at risk given the flat, low-lying geography. Already, places like Dorchester County are witnessing the adverse consequences from saltwater moving into and ruining farm fields to worsening coastal erosion. It just takes another 2003 Hurricane Isabel to turn a chronic, long-term problem into an overnight disaster with a high human toll.

To continue to develop Ocean City and the Eastern Shore as if things were just hunky-dory, to build a multibillion-dollar third bay bridge that will undoubtedly accommodate further waterfront development seems the height of irresponsibility. It’s clear that some Marylanders are in denial about climate. The resistance of Ocean City’s elected officials to building wind turbines a dozen miles or more offshore offers the most apparent evidence of this. But state government can’t afford that head-in-the-sand approach. Not when it will fall to future generations to pick up the pieces. The no-build option may not be the politically popular move but it’s still the right thing to do.

The Eastern Shore is hardly alone in facing this threat, of course. At the very doorstep of Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly, downtown Annapolis has proven itself more prone to nuisance flooding in recent years, too, and the pattern is expected to double or triple between now and 2030, perhaps increasing 15-fold by 2050. It’s long past time that every part of the state made plans for dealing with this approaching reality. Not just with the easy things like installing more rooftop solar panels or creating electric vehicle charging stations but by making the difficult but important choices — like not inviting a worse disaster by building a third Chesapeake Bay bridge.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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