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Officials Favor New Chesapeake Bridge at Existing Maryland Crossing

Thu February 25, 2021 - Northeast Edition
Bay Journal

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is part of U.S. Routes 50/301. It is the only Bay vehicular crossing in Maryland. (Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media photo)
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is part of U.S. Routes 50/301. It is the only Bay vehicular crossing in Maryland. (Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media photo)

Maryland transportation officials recommend building a new Chesapeake Bay bridge at the site of the existing two spans that cross between Anne Arundel County and Kent Island.

The project will cost between $5.4 billion and $8.9 billion, depending on which construction methods are chosen. But a preliminary study concludes that the new crossing will prevent increasing traffic volumes from causing gridlock on Maryland's lone connection to the Eastern Shore across the Bay.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the existing 4-mi. toll bridge, released the long-awaited findings Feb. 23 in a draft "environmental impact statement." The $5 million study had been scheduled for release in December 2020, but officials delayed the rollout amid a spike in COVID-19 cases during that month, fearing it might suppress public comment.

Many environmentalists question the need for a third crossing, saying that officials are overestimating projected traffic growth between the two halves of the state.

Two parallel bridges, known collectively as the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bay Bridge, currently cross the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland — a two-lane eastbound span constructed in 1952 and a three-lane westbound span that opened beside it in 1973. The segments form part of U.S. Routes 50/301.

The Transportation Authority study began with 14 potential corridors, spread across more than 100 mi., from the top of the Bay to the Virginia border.

Those were narrowed down to three options. From north to south, the possible routes would cross the Bay from Pasadena to Centreville; at the existing bridge site from east of Annapolis, near Sandy Point State Park, to Kent Island; or from the Mayo Peninsula in Anne Arundel County to near St. Michaels in Talbot County. A "no-build" option also was considered.

Neither the Pasadena-Centreville nor the Mayo-St. Michaels routes would divert enough traffic away from the existing bridge to keep them from becoming overwhelmed with traffic during peak times in 2040, according to the study's estimates.

With no improvements, the existing spans are projected to carry 135,300 vehicles on a typical summer weekend day in 2040. By running a new crossing at the same location, that total falls to 79,700, a 40 percent decline. This was by far the largest decline among the 14 possible corridors, the study found.

Cost estimates top out at $7.2 billion for the northern option, $8.9 billion for the current location and $15.7 billion for the southern option. Choosing a bridge-tunnel hybrid would add $3-$5 billion to each scenario, according to the report.

The costs for the alignment parallel to the existing spans assume adding five to seven new crossing lanes. The study leaves it for future determination whether the added capacity will come solely from a new bridge structure or will be achieved by widening one or both existing bridges.

The report identifies the existing crossing location as the "preferred corridor alternative."

That option is likely to have fewer environmental impacts as well, according to the study. That's because the water crossing is shorter than its counterparts, and the route can take advantage of existing land-based infrastructure. The northern and southern routes likely would have "greater impacts to sensitive environmental resources in and around the Chesapeake Bay, especially tidal wetlands and aquatic resources," the analysis said.

The analysis agrees with many of the project's detractors that the northern and southern routes could also increase demand for unplanned development in the Eastern Shore's rural areas.

Since 1980, the annual number of vehicles crossing the bridges has soared from 10 million to 27 million, according to the report. With no changes to the bridges, typical weekday traffic is expected to increase by 23 percent by 2040, while summer weekend day traffic will grow by 14 percent in those two decades.

A recent analysis funded by the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, an Eastern Shore environmental group, suggests those projections are inflated. That report argued in part that the state's weekend traffic estimates are based on the measurement of one day of traffic in August, when traffic is significantly heavier than a typical summer weekend day.

Critics also have pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to reconsider the span. The virus and resulting lockdowns have upended the way people live and work, with many telecommuting and choosing vacations closer to home.

But the Transportation Authority rejected using any pandemic-related effects in its report.

"At this time, there is no definitive traffic model that would predict how the pandemic will affect long-term traffic projections," the authors wrote. "However, we will continue to track trends in travel behavior and traffic volumes as our communities, businesses, places of worship, and schools begin to reopen, and [we will] consider new information as it becomes available."

Bridge opponents have pushed the state to consider other modes of travel to get people across the Bay.

In the 244-page report, the Transportation Authority did outline four potential alternatives to a bridge: electronic no-stop tolling, a ferry service, bus rapid transit and a new rail line. The agency eliminated all those as stand-alone options and permanently nixed any consideration of a rail line, which it deemed prohibitively expensive. The remaining alternatives, however, will continue to be analyzed as possibilities implemented in combination with each other, or with the new bridge, if the effort moves forward. And the change to electronic tolling is already under way.

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