Traffic backups at the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, more commonly known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, are not exactly a new thing. The archives of this newspaper are chock full of articles of angry motorists and overheated vehicles on U.S. 50 from Bowie to Wye Mills — most often in the summer months when Ocean City and the beach resorts beckon. Things got better when a second span was added in 1973, but given that even the twin spans have a finite capacity of about 1,500 vehicles per lane per hour, jams are inevitable and major road construction projects make them worse. So it’s no big surprise that the latest $27 million redecking project, a two-year effort begun just last month, has already caused significant distress.
This week, Comptroller Peter Franchot added to the chorus of complaints with a proposal to temporarily suspend the work on the bridge. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, he called it “poorly planned and executed" and wants officials back at the drawing board in the fall and winter months to come up with a better proposal. “It’s my hope that, through some real preparation and planning, we will be able to conduct the necessary repairs to the bridge while using every tool in the kit — including a greater investment in mass transit and the elimination of the Bay Bridge tollbooths — to relieve the burden to Maryland travelers to the greatest extent possible. At this point, we just don’t have a choice,” the comptroller posted on social media.
While we can’t speak to the quality of planning at the Maryland Transportation Authority (or the Department of Transportation under Mr. Rahn given the administration’s still-stinging choice to kill the long-planned $2.9 billion Baltimore Red Line transit project), we would hope officials would be wary of halting bridge redecking now, particularly if it means moving more of it to summer, the peak traffic months. That would amount to, as engineers might say in more technical terms, cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The difference between traffic in the peak summer weekends and winter weekdays is substantial. Can the MdTA do more to relieve congestion, such as temporarily suspending tolls as it did on Sept. 27? Probably, but the comptroller’s public scold doesn’t offer much in the way of likely alternatives beyond eliminating toll booths.
Some cage-rattling is worthwhile, of course. William Donald Schaefer thought it was necessary to ward off bureaucratic complacency. But let’s not pretend that Bay Bridge backups are a revelation. The first one — five miles long — was recorded on the day the first span opened July 30, 1952. Five years later, The Sun reported complaints of 30-minute backups on the bridge and how the two-lane span should have been built as three in retrospect. Two years after a second, 3-lane span was added in 1973, a 12-mile backup was reported on a mid-Saturday afternoon. “There is no way to get X amount of cars into X amount of lanes with a slowdown or backup,” an MDOT spokesman observed in August of 1975.
Times have changed. A little. The Bay Bridge handles more commuters than ever before as the Eastern Shore has become increasingly developed. Available fixes like eliminating traffic lights on Kent Island or upgrading the Severn River Bridge have already been done. Yet it still comes down to X amount of cars and X amount of lanes over a bridge for which there aren’t good alternative routes. Commuters (and their employers) need to adapt. All-electronic toll collection might help. But even under the best circumstances, occasional backups will continue from now until 2021 when the redecking is scheduled to be complete. No amount of pontificating will alter that.