No bridge lasts forever, with the possible exception of certain historic structures built by the ancient Romans. They wear out and need to be restored or replaced. The recent decision by the Federal Highway Administration to move forward with plans for a new crossing at the site of the two existing spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge linking Sandy Point with Kent Island is hardly unexpected. As much as some individuals including Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman have protested that any new crossing should be located elsewhere — well to the north or south — the existing Anne Arundel-Queen Anne’s site has long seemed most practical, given the degree to which U.S. 50 has been upgraded over the years to accommodate traffic to and from the region. It was also the clear preference of Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The decision is hardly definitive. The next step will involve further examination of the environmental impact of the potential $8.9 billion project under what is known as a “Tier 2″ study. But one option for the new bridge being discussed ought to be taken off the table right now. And that is the possibility that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge’s existing spans — the original two-lane structure opened in 1952 and the three-lane parallel span added in 1973 — would be replaced by a massive eight-lane bridge.
How big is an eight-lane bridge? Really, really big. San Francisco’s Golden Gate is six lanes across. The Brooklyn Bridge provides five car lanes. The dual-span Delaware Memorial Bridge has eight, but it carries both Interstate 295 and U.S. 40 traffic as a gateway to the Northeast. In decades past, providing more lanes would be seen as progress, a way to eliminate backups at the toll booths. But today, it seems preposterous that Maryland might allow such a monstrosity to be built without more seriously considering the ramifications, most notably how creating such capacity would itself augment traffic and impact land use decisions just as climate change threatens to potentially devastate much of the Eastern Shore.
Yet moving from five lanes of traffic to eight has broad support from the Eastern Shore’s elected leaders. As recently reported by Maryland Matters, the MDTA has a collection of letters written by politicians from Ocean City to Elkton asking for all eight lanes — to be built on toll revenues. They see only economic opportunity in all that potential traffic headed their way (along with what some have projected to be $1.3 billion or so in state-subsidized U.S. 50 widening projects, too). And it probably should not surprise anyone to learn that a lot of these bigger-is-better cheerleaders are climate change deniers who fail to appreciate how the rising waters and worsening storms pose an existential threat.
It’s one thing to ensure the Chesapeake Bay Bridge carries on as a safe and viable link connecting the Eastern Shore to the rest of the state. It’s quite another to build such excess capacity to encourage more development in flood plains and more long-distance commuters on the road year-round. Bottlenecks at peak travel times may be an annoyance, particularly in those summer months when the lure of Maryland and Delaware beaches is strong, but to overbuild infrastructure has even worse consequences, not only for the environment, including that body of water those drivers are seeking to cross, but potentially for state taxpayers who are inevitably left holding the bag after a natural disaster.
Just last month, a lot of Maryland lawmakers were busy patting themselves on the back for passing legislation to set more ambitious standards for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. And as much as the state’s Republican governor criticized the bill during the legislative session, he ultimately let it become law. Yet if all these folks are serious about addressing climate change, shouldn’t they be speaking out against an eight-lane bridge? Is Maryland truly serious about reducing emissions or just when it is politically popular?
Officially, alternative investments like mass transit (bus rapid transit) and a vehicle ferry are still on the table. So should congestion toll pricing and more active lane management that commits more lanes to eastbound vacationers on Fridays and Saturdays, for instance. Hopefully, these less costly and more environmentally friendly approaches will get more serious consideration during Tier 2 than they have received to date. Maryland needs to be smarter about how it manages its transportation needs and that includes on the U.S. 50 corridor.
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