Prospect of Third Span Over Chesapeake Strongly Opposed

Wed May 03, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Kristen Wyatt

ANNAPOLIS, MD (AP) It’s been more than a year since state officials started studying the possibility of building a third bridge across the Chesapeake Bay. A task force was appointed, public meetings were held, and reams of charts and graphs were produced for a report due this summer on a possible new bridge.

But are state officials any closer to figuring out where to put a new bridge to ease traffic congestion? Some close to the task force doubt it. Opposition is strong across the Eastern Shore to a new bridge.

“I’m laying in front of the bulldozers if it comes to that,” said Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Gene Ransom. “We’re adamantly opposed to a third bridge. It means more development, more traffic. My gut feeling is, we’ll never have a third bridge built.”

The problems with building a new bridge, in addition to the one in Maryland and one in Virginia, are many.

Most crossings would be longer, and therefore more expensive to build, than the one between Annapolis and Kent Island. Roads leading to the bridge would have to be widened. The construction and noise from a new bridge would almost certainly damage any wetlands around it. And residents near the bay worry their communities would come to look like Kent Island on a summer holiday weekend — one long traffic jam.

But sticking with just the Bay Bridge is no great option either, according to state transportation officials. They predicted last year that 12-hour traffic jams will become routine around the current span if something isn’t done. And as the Eastern Shore population grows, taking U.S. 50 to the beaches will slow, too.

It’s a pickle either way. That may explain why the report, originally due out in April, won’t be ready until June. And why the final report won’t suggest where a new bridge should go — it will just outline the pros and cons of putting a new bridge in four regions, from north to south.

“It’s not just a matter of, ’Let’s go build a bridge,’” said Trent Kittleman, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Kittleman said the report will be more of a compilation of research than a proposal.

“This task force was unique. It was not charged with making a decision. It was charged with getting the process started,” she said.

And even if a site for a new bridge were settled, estimates vary on how quickly it could be ready. Kittleman said that some transportation experts have suggested it would take 20 years.

“A lot has to be done making people comfortable,” she said.

Each of the four regions to be outlined in the report have detractors. A northern crossing, from the Baltimore area to Kent County, may not take enough traffic off the current Bay Bridge to be worth the trouble. The second option, building a new bridge alongside the current spans, is strongly opposed by locals in Annapolis and Kent Island.

The other two options — building a new bridge from somewhere in southern Maryland to the lower Eastern Shore — would attract Washington drivers but would require a great deal of land to be condemned.

“It’s an extremely difficult problem,” said Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, who served on the task force. In each option, the easy part is building the bridge. The hard part is everything else — the land and the roads, he said.

“It’s going to cause a lot of gnashing of teeth” if a bridge is ever built, Astle said. “Nobody in any of the four areas likes the solution of having their area be the local area for the bridge.”

Another lawmaker, Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, was even more pointed.

“Nobody wants it,” he said, predicting traffic snarls and exploding development in any area where a bridge is placed. “Basically the people of the Eastern Shore don’t want to be another Anne Arundel County.”

If a new crossing is built, Colburn said, it should go right next to the current crossing near Annapolis.

“There’s no need to take another pristine area of the Eastern Shore” and turn it over to development, he said.

So if no one can agree where to put a new bridge, but traffic planners said the current Maryland crossing is growing impossibly congested, where does that leave Maryland drivers?

Kittleman said that short-term goals include smoothing traffic already on the Bay Bridge. She mentioned getting more people to use E-ZPass, instead of cash, when they go through the tolls. And she said that last year’s “Go Early, Stay Late” promotion for vacationers had a noticeable effect on summer bridge traffic jams, so that is likely to be repeated.

Also, Kittleman said, state officials are considering trying congestion pricing. That means the price to cross the Bay Bridge would rise from its current $2.50 on busy summer weekends, a move thought to discourage unnecessary trips and get people to use the bridge at non-peak times.

The main thing to remember, task force members said, is that a new bridge isn’t coming anytime soon, so travelers will have to adjust to higher prices or longer waits on the current crossings.

“I think that getting people across the bridge in a more timely fashion is going to be the saving grace,” said Al Silverstein, a task force member and president of the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think in the next 25 to 30 years you’ll see any construction.”

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