Bay Bridge blues

Our view: The costly, con­tro­ver­sial and un­cer­tain prospects for another span across the Ch­e­sa­peake should have set off the gov­er­nor’s ‘boon­dog­gle’ radar

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Bridge traf­fic now ranges be­tween bad and ter­ri­ble, and it’s pro­jected to get a lot worse in the decades ahead. There’s lit­tle ques­tion that the cur­rent pat­terns of de­vel­op­ment and traf­fic growth on both sides of Mary­land’s bay cross­ing will se­ri­ously over­whelm its ca­pac­ity. The fact that there are no easy an­swers — and cer­tainly no cheap ones — is no rea­son to ig­nore the prob­lem, and to that ex­tent, we sup­port Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to do some­thing about it.

But his an­nounce­ment that Mary­land will spend $5 mil­lion on a multi-year study that could be a pre­cur­sor to fed­eral fund­ing for a third span does lead us to ques­tion his pri­or­i­ties and fore­sight. Of all the state’s trans­porta­tion needs, why fo­cus on this one?

That ques­tion is par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent in the con­text of Mr. Ho­gan’s de­ci­sion last year to aban­don a decade of plan­ning, mil­lions of dol­lars in stud­ies and all-but-cer­tain fed­eral fund­ing for the Red Line light rail in Baltimore, an ex­ten­sion of what he said was his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of avoid­ing “waste­ful boon­dog­gles.” That project was ex­pected to cost $2.9 bil­lion, and would have con­nected some of Baltimore’s most eco­nom­i­cally dis­tressed neigh­bor­hoods to some of the re­gion’s biggest em­ploy­ment cen­ters. A third Bay Bridge span, which would make life eas­ier for East­ern Shore com­muters and Western Shore va­ca­tion­ers, could cost at least twice that much, and even if it ab­sorbed the en­tire 22,000-car in­crease in daily traf­fic ex­pected across the bay by 2040, it would pale next to the 57,000 daily rid­ers the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­jected for the Red Line.

The Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion pointed to a planned tun­nel un­der Baltimore as the fa­tal flaw of the Red Line, say­ing it pre­sented un­told en­gi­neer­ing and cost risks. But another Bay Bridge span presents a whole host of is­sues of its own, as out­lined in a task force re­port from the Ehrlich ad­min­is­tra­tion. That group stud­ied four op­tions for newcross­ings — one be­tween Baltimore and Kent coun­ties, one at the cur­rent lo­ca­tion, one far­ther south be­tween Anne Arun­del or Calvert coun­ties and Tal­bot County, and one be­tween Calvert and Dorch­ester coun­ties — and found prob­lems with all of them. All would re­quire ma­jor up­grades to the sur­face road net­work con­nect­ing to the new bridge on both sides of the bay, pre­sent en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues re­lated to wet­lands and other sen­si­tive ar­eas, and en­tail sig­nif­i­cant pur­chases of pri­vate prop­erty.

Some res­i­dents along the Red Line’s path wor­ried about the light rail’s ef­fect on traf­fic pat­terns and the char­ac­ter of their com­mu­ni­ties. But that’s noth­ing com­pared to the con­cerns res­i­dents ex­pressed about a pos­si­ble third Bay Bridge span dur­ing the pub­lic meet­ings held by the Ehrlich-era task force. The On Tues­day, Gov. Larry Ho­gan an­nounced a $5 mil­lion study to ex­plore a po­ten­tial new Ch­e­sa­peake Bay cross­ing. ad­di­tion of a sec­ond span to the ex­ist­ing Bay Bridge in the 1970s helped fos­ter the de­vel­op­ment of sub­ur­ban sprawl in Queen Anne’s County and be­yond. Res­i­dents near the pro­posed al­ter­na­tive cross­ings wor­ried that would hap­pen to their com­mu­ni­ties, and those near the cur­rent bridge feared that another span would only make mat­ters worse.

That said, it’s also worth con­sid­er­ing whether pro­jec­tions for traf­fic and de­vel­op­ment will re­ally pan out the way we cur­rently ex­pect. Younger gen­er­a­tions have ex­hib­ited marked dif­fer­ences in where they live and how much they drive, and it’s not at all clear whether the cur­rent pace of sub­ur­ban­iza­tion of the East­ern Shore will con­tinue. Cli­mate change and the at­ten­dant sea level rise — which is pro­jected to put much of Ocean City among other swaths of the East­ern Shore un­der­wa­ter — may have an im­pact, too. Can traf­fic prob­lems be mit­i­gated in other ways, for ex­am­ple through vary­ing tolls based on lev­els of con­ges­tion? The light use of the In­ter-County Con­nec­tor in sub­ur­ban Wash­ing­ton sug­gests mo­torists are will­ing to put up with quite a bit of traf­fic if it saves them on tolls.

And speak­ing of tolls, Mr. Ho­gan cast him­self as the first gov­er­nor with “the guts” to move for­ward with a full-fledged fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal study of a third bridge span, but he is also the gov­er­nor who cut Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Author­ity tolls by an es­ti­mated $336 mil­lion over six years. He may be putting Mary­land in a po­si­tion to de­cide on a course of ac­tion for ad­dress­ing Bay Bridge back­ups, but he’s cer­tainly not putting it in a po­si­tion to take on a new mega-project any time soon.


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