Maryland’s $5 million study of how best to relieve congestion at the William Preston Lane Jr. Bridge, more commonly known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, has winnowed down the potential options regarding an additional bay crossing, and they are, with one exception, pretty ugly. A bridge and connecting highways could be built in the upper bay linking Pasadena with Rock Hall (Corridor 6). They could could be built in the mid-bay from Mayo to Easton (Corridor 8). Or something could be built alongside the existing spans at Sandy Point (Corridor 7). The best for moving vehicles to and from the Eastern Shore? That’s lucky Number 7 — although the price tag for such a structure could run into the billions of dollars, and that doesn’t even consider its ancillary costs. (More about that in a moment.)
The good news is that this is just a first step of a required, and pretty darn elaborate, planning process undertaken by the Maryland Transportation Authority. This is merely a Tier 1 National Environmental Policy Act study that’s not expected to be completed until 2021. Think of it as a high-altitude flyover. MdTA wouldn’t even be sorting through a specific route within a preferred “corridor” until Tier 2. And then there’s the not-so-minor matter of how to pay for it and detailing the exact environmental consequences of such a major transportation investment versus the presumed benefits. Which brings us to the most important point: The best alternative of all (a point not refuted by preliminary study results, by the way) is not to build anything.
Oh, it might not be the choice if one’s only goal is to move the maximum number of vehicles across the Chesapeake Bay with the minimum amount of waiting, but that’s a remarkably short-sighted way of looking at a potential disaster in the making. The rural Eastern Shore is already suffering under development pressure as wetlands and other critical habitat are lost to condos and waterfront construction. Meanwhile, the region is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Indeed, because of climate the state’s own scientists have forecast a possible two-foot rise by 2050. That raises the question: Would the third span be to improve traffic flow or accommodate an evacuation of the waterfront? The irony is that vehicle exhaust is a prime source of excess greenhouse gases.
Small wonder that Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman has already expressed reservations about any new bridge, especially one built in the Pasadena or Mayo peninsulas. He points out that the whole thing smacks of dated 20th century thinking about transportation. Building nothing doesn’t mean doing nothing. It would mean investing in low-impact alternatives like ferries, rapid bus service, off-peak toll pricing and other, smarter and less costly approaches. The reality is that the existing Chesapeake Bay spans have encouraged people to make bad lifestyle choices by enabling long commutes from towns and villages on the Eastern Shore to employment centers in Central Maryland. It would be idiotic to enable more bad and environmentally costly planning (including all those out-of-state tractor trailers using U.S. 50 and U.S. 301, including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, as an outer bypass of the Interstate 95 corridor). Ocean City seems to be doing just fine with the current five lanes of traffic at Sandy Point.
Too bad that Gov. Larry Hogan, who happily spiked Baltimore’s Red Line, the much-anticipated light rail project, four years ago as wasteful spending, can’t recognize a genuine transportation boondoggle when he sees one. On Wednesday, his office issued a statement from him saying that a third span at Sandy Point is the “only one option I will ever accept." It’s an odd position given the years of study still ahead, and one seemingly without much political foundation. Other than local real estate brokers and Ocean City business tycoons, the appetite for growth on the Eastern Shore is far from inexhaustible. Locals weren’t all that wild about Willliam Donald Schaefer’s “Reach the Beach” highway construction initiative a generation ago; it’s hard to believe they want a bigger influx of westerners (people living on the western side of the bay) today.
While Mr. Hogan is unlikely to still be in office when, and if, ground is ever broken for a third span no matter the location, just to be on the safe side, Maryland voters should express their preference for the no-build option to the MdTA in the coming weeks, either by speaking out at one of six public hearings on the study’s preliminary findings beginning Sept. 24 at Kent County High School or by submitting written comments to the study’s web site at www.baycrossingstudy.com/public-involvement/submit-comments. Sorry, governor, but building yet another bay bridge is a bad idea whose time has not yet come and probably shouldn’t. Ever.