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
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.