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New Bay Bridge Study Is for Real

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Gov. Larry Hogan late last month announced a new $5 million study to expand or replace the Chesapeake Bay bridges.

With that news, your first reaction might be: “We don’t need a new study. The state did one last year. We need a new bridge.”

State senators on both sides of the bay had been pushing for a study of a new bay crossing, and that’s what the Maryland Transportation Authority gave them last December. What Hogan announced is not a duplicate study, but a Tier 1 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis, which is “the first critical step in moving forward” toward a new bridge, the governor said. This is the federally mandated study that lays out all the impacts, risks and problems in building anything that “significantly impacts the human environment,” according to the law.

The state can’t build anything new on the bay without it, and it certainly can’t get federal funding, which would be a crucial element with any bridge replacement.

“It’s no secret that traffic backs up on Route 50,” said Hogan. “The reality is that there is simply too much traffic, and by 2040 it will continue to get worse.”

The oldest Bay Bridge, the two lane William Preston Lane span, is 64 years old and the three-lane span is 43 years old. With good maintenance, they could last another 49 years; but by 2040, the backups would run 13 to 14 miles each way on a summer weekend. This means a traffic jam along Route 301-50 would reach from the toll plaza all the way down to Route I-97. There are already traffic jams in rush hour from the Severn River bridge to I-97, but that bottleneck is due to be fixed in the next couple of years.

Alternative Not Likely

Last year’s study did not look at alternative sites for a new bridge, but any new environmental study will likely knock out any viable alternatives.

The current crossing from Sandy Point to Kent Island was chosen because it’s the shortest distance across the Bay; the next shortest distance across the bay is 58 miles south from Calvert Cliffs to Dorchester County. Access roads would need to be built through wetlands and wildlife refuges on the Eastern Shore. A major highway would also need to be built into Calvert County from the Washington suburbs, as well.

Much as Anne Arundel County would love to get rid of some the traffic on Route 50, the fact is that the access roads already exist there. The environment has already being degraded by the roads and traffic.

The MDTA study last December looked at multiple options at the current crossing. It estimated that a third lane could be added to the Lane span at a cost of $3.9 billion, including maintenance of the current structures, but that does not alleviate much traffic at peak hours.

What would really be needed to accommodate the traffic in 2040 is four lanes each way and an extra lane on Route 50. That could be achieved by adding a third three-lane bridge costing $5 billion; tearing down the Lane bridge and building a new five-lane span costing $5.5 billion; or building a new eight-lane structure for $6 billion. The earliest any of those options could open is in 2035. Since estimated costs are in current dollars, the price tag would be even higher.

Hogan’s announcement is a fairly safe move for the governor, since the NEPA study by itself will take at least four years and requires substantial public input.

“I won’t be governor when this bridge is complete, but at least I got the process started,” said Hogan, who won’t have to come up with the construction money, even if he gets a second term. “It’s going to be a problem for a long time, but you’re never going to get it done unless you get started.”

Choosing a School Board

The Anne Arundel County delegation to the legislature will again tackle its longest running controversy: how to choose members of the county board of education.

The controversy has divided the lawmakers, pitting Republicans, who generally want to see some form of elected school board, against Democrats, who prefer the current nominating process with the ultimate choice of board members left to the governor. That process seemed to guarantee some diversity, but Hogan’s appointments have undermined the diversity argument.

The delegation’s subcommittee will take up the issue in a hearing on Sept. 13 in the Lowe House Office Building, Room 145, in Annapolis. They’ll hear what other counties do (most have switched to some form of an elected board), then they’ll hear comments from elected officials, members of the school board and the public.