Opposition grows against Bay bridge into Kent
CHESTERTOWN — The Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, vehemently opposed to a Chesapeake Bay bridge crossing into Kent County, enlisted supporters last week while hosting an information session about the Bay Bridge Crossing Study.
Janet Christensen-Lewis, chairman of the KCPA, and board member Elizabeth Watson spoke to a full house Jan. 25 at the Chestertown firehouse.
The possibility of a third Bay crossing, this one through Kent, moved to the front burner last fall when the Maryland Department of Transportation announced that it would be starting a National Environmental Policy Act study of the Chesapeake Bay.
Christensen-Lewis summarized past attempts to create a Bay crossing. She said a plan to cross the Bay began in the early 1900s, but was stifled by the Great Depression in 1929.
Other events, such as World War II, limited proposals drafted in the late 1930s. By the time the war ended, a crossing through Kent Island in Queen Anne’s County was chosen, Christensen-Lewis said.
The purpose of a third bridge is to reduce traffic on the two existing spans, which would not benefit the Eastern Shore, Christensen-Lewis said.
“Maryland Transportation Authority is using a 20th century model as a solution to address 21st century transportation and growth,” Christensen-Lewis said. “A bridge terminus would not be harmonious with the land or the people who populate the region.”
Watson said that after members of the KCPA met with the Maryland Department of Transportation on Jan. 2, “our board realized that we needed to get busy. And the first thing we decided to do was to hold this meeting. Just to walk you guys through enough of the process so that you understand what we know.”
In her presentation, Watson said the Maryland Department of Transportation has narrowed its area of study to five zones. The NEPA study requires organizations to look at the potential effects of federal action on the environment.
“So the process is going to use past studies, and it’s going to use existing information,” Watson said.
According to the study schedule that Watson presented, a draft of the environmental impact report would be published in the fall of 2019.
Watson said during the Maryland Department of Transportation’s most recent phase of the study, which asked residents to provide their input on a third Bay crossing, about 400 responses were received.
“That is unheard of in their experience here in Maryland, which surprises me because I do think Maryland is a state that values its planning,” Watson said.
At the Jan. 25 meeting, audience members were given three pre-written letters and an envelope, addressed to Heather Lowe, environmental manager for the Maryland State Highway Administration. Watson encouraged residents to sign the letters and mail them as a way to continue public response to the study, she said.
The U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are among the agencies that have committed to help the Maryland Transportation Authority in the first period of the study.
Watson said the Maryland Department of Transportation will present a detailed analysis of the environmental impact study in the spring of 2019 in a public meeting.
“We’ll probably see the summary of the public comments much sooner than that,” Watson said.
She said new corridor proposals will have to conform to the study’s purpose and need reports in order to be accepted. About 10 to 15 potential crossings will be identified in the fall, and there will be a no-build option.
“Typically, the no-build option used to be called the existing conditions option,” Watson said. “And basically, it’s not necessarily it will always be the way it is, it’s what would keep happening, if the bridge keeps going the way it is.”
Watson said she has not been able to confirm rumors that Dorchester County and the Town of Crisfield in Somerset County are in favor of a third Bay crossing through their jurisdictions.
Following Watson’s presentation, Kent County commissioners Ron Fithian and Bill Short spoke about their visit to the Maryland General Assembly.
Fithian explained Maryland Statute 4-407, which requires that five (a majority) of the nine Eastern Shore counties approve a toll road before it is built. Fithian said the statute is being challenged by a bill introduced by Sen. Edward Rilley.
Fithian said, “A Senator Rilley out of Anne Arundel County, a week or two ago, put a bill in to repeal that. To take that voice away from us. So Billy and I left here yesterday morning, and went to Annapolis, to oppose that legislation.”
Fithian said that he came away from the trip to Annapolis feeling positive about his testimony opposing the proposed legislation. Fithian said the commissioners will know the bill’s fate near the end of the legislative session in April.
Short said sometimes testifying in Annapolis helps state legislators pay attention to the Eastern Shore.
“They have paid attention over the last four or five years to almost everything we’ve taken over there,” Short said. “And the only question I really had to that committee yesterday was, if Senator Hershey (R-36-Upper Shore) was to develop a bill like Senator Rilley did, telling the western shore, you can’t vote on something, how would that go over? And it was dead silence.”
During the public comment section, Clerk of the Circuit Court for Kent County Mark Mumford urged those in the audience to contact their local officials.
“There’s nothing that gets heard louder than the voters’ voices, so let them hear you folks,” Mumford said.
One resident proposed locating an endangered species in the county to prevent construction of another Bay crossing. Watson said the corridor would be passing through almost no wetlands and therefore unlikely to disturb animal species.
Another resident suggested a measure that would forbid federal funding of a crossing, if Kent County was named as the best route for one. Mike Arntz, representing the office of 1st District Congressman Andy Harris, said he would take the idea back to Harris.
Harris wrote in an email Saturday that he believed it was up to the community to decide what is best.
“When major projects, like windmills in Ocean City or another Bay bridge crossing, greatly affect a community, I would fully support the decision of the local community with regards to the project,” Harris wrote in the email.
Other suggestions from the audience included different transit options, such as a tunnel instead of a bridge or a ferry system across the Bay.
“I don’t think anything is off the table,” Watson said.
Members of the audience also asked how much a proposed new bridge would cost.
“So in numbers, what would this cost? My guess is about 20 billion,” Watson said.
Kent County commissioners Ron Fithian, right, and Bill Short speak during a Jan. 25 meeting hosted by the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance.
A “No Bay Bridge to Kent” sign is posted at the intersection of Mill and High streets in Chestertown. Signs were distributed at the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance-sponsored meeting Jan. 25.