Pre-Filed Bill Aims To Set Aside Funds For Third Bay Bridge Study

BERLIN — While the concept of adding a third span across the Chesapeake Bay to relieve traffic backups to and from the Eastern Shore certainly isn’t a new one, it could be gaining some momentum if a pre-filed bill in the Maryland General Assembly gets any traction this year.

The two existing spans, both decades old, continue to handle the roughly 25  million vehicles that cross them each year, but not without chronic backups, especially on summer weekends when vehicles often back up for several miles in either direction.

The idea of finding a location for a third crossing first surfaced nearly a decade ago in 2007, but failed to gain any momentum for a variety of reasons, most importantly the cost but also identifying an appropriate location and the potential environmental impact of a third major bridge crossing on the environmentally fragile estuary.

During the Maryland Department of Transportation tour of the counties in the fall, Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) renewed the discussion about a possible third bridge across the Chesapeake, at least conceptually. Last month, Mathias took the notion of a third bridge a step further with a pre-filed bill calling for an environmental impact study and a mechanism to pay for it.

Senate Bill 56, co-sponsored by Mathias and Anne Arundel County Senator John Astle, would, if approved, authorize the Maryland Transportation Authority to develop a cost estimate to conduct an environmental impact study for a third bridge across the Chesapeake at a location yet to be determined.

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While no specific locations are mentioned in the bill’s language, the legislation does suggest a site adjacent to the existing spans between Anne Arundel County and Kent Island, or another location within Maryland with termini on the western shore and Eastern Shore that are determined to be environmentally and economically feasible by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

In past discussions of a third bridge across the Chesapeake, several potential locations have been discussed, including a crossing further north of the existing spans, or much further south. One potential incarnation had a new crossing with an eastern terminus near Crisfield and a western terminus somewhere in southern Maryland, such as Point Lookout, for example. At one point, there was feasibility study funding in place for the latter, but that funding was later diverted to other uses.

For now, the bill pre-filed by Mathias and Astle does not define a potential location, but merely authorizes the MTA to begin exploring the potential with an environmental impact study and provides a mechanism to pay for it, which will not come cheap. Apparently, it won’t come fast either, according to language in the bill.

“Beginning in fiscal year 2017 and every year after, the MTA shall set aside and accumulate in a separate fund the greater of $100,000 of five percent of the cost estimate for the environmental impact study for a third bridge across the Chesapeake until the amount is sufficient to cover the cost estimate,” the bill’s language reads.

The bill specifies the funding mechanism for the environmental impact study, but does not preclude an expedited schedule should funding be made available earlier. Language in the bill suggests the MTA can take any and all steps necessary to complete the environmental impact study for a third bridge prior to the accumulation of the funding necessary to pay for it. The bill is assigned to the Finance Committee and could get a hearing as early as Jan. 13.

Meanwhile, another bill pre-filed in the House attempts a shorter term remedy to the congestion at the existing Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Introduced by Anne Arundel County Delegate Tony McConkey, House Bill 35 lays out a plan to make the payment of tolls on the bridges entirely electronic and would eliminate the cash option. The bill asserts the payment of tolls in cash at the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Chesapeake Bay Bridge impedes the flow of traffic across the spans and mandating an all-electronic payment system would allow vehicles to flow freely across the spans without stopping.

Currently, drivers with EZ-Pass can often breeze through the toll plaza unimpeded, but several lanes are typically dedicated to cash payments, resulting in sometimes miles-long backups on the western side. Several years ago, the MTA removed the toll booths on the eastern side and doubled the toll on the western side, the concept being most would cross both ways at some point and the toll collection would equal out.

While House Bill 35 calls for implementing an all-electronic toll collection at the Chesapeake Bay bridges, it clearly won’t happen any time soon if the bill is approved. The legislation calls for an all-electronic toll collection at the bridge to be fully in place by July 1, 2026.