Governor Favors Expanding Current Bay Bridge Over Other Options

OCEAN CITY — Multiple alternatives are on the table for an additional Chesapeake Bay crossing and the lifeline to Ocean City and the Eastern Shore, but it appears one might be a deal-breaker for the state.

The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) this week announced four options will be brought to the table as a federal review of a potential new crossing over the Chesapeake Bay begins. In 2016, state lawmakers approved a study to begin exploring other alternatives to crossing the Chesapeake and reaching the Eastern Shore and ultimately Ocean City than the existing William Preston Lane Memorial Bridge, or simply the Bay Bridge.

On Tuesday, the MDTA announced it would present four options for a new bay crossing as part of the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.

The four options presented include a no-build alternative, which would retain the existing dual spans over the Chesapeake while exploring ways to make it more efficient. Other options include a new bay crossing between Pasadena in Anne Arundel County and Rock Hall in Kent County and Centreville in Queen Anne’s County; a new bay crossing between Crofton in Anne Arundel County and Easton in Talbot County; and, finally, an additional span added to the existing Bay Bridge complex.

After the MDTA announcement on Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan quickly asserted the latter was the only option he found acceptable.

“There is only one option I will ever accept: adding a third span to our existing Bay Bridge,” he said. “While the federal process requires multiple proposals, the data is indisputable. This option would maximize congestion and minimize environmental impact.”

Data collected during the Chesapeake Bay crossing study commissioned by the General Assembly indicates all three corridor alternatives would achieve the desired results of reducing congestion and miles-long back-ups. However, the study data suggests adding a new span to the existing Bay Bridge complex would best reduce back-ups, provide the greatest reduction in the duration of unacceptable congestion levels and be the most compatible with existing land-use patterns. MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports agrees.

“While the no-build alternative and the three preliminary corridor alternatives are being included in the federal environmental process for further study, traffic models indicate that one of the three — building a third crossing within the same corridor as the existing Bay Bridge — would have the most positive impact on reducing traffic,” he said.

Naturally there is pushback on any of the options from a variety of sources. Communities in Anne Arundel County on the western shore and the communities on the Eastern Shore where a potential new span would land have objected for a variety of reasons. Environmental groups and land conservation advocates are also pushing for the no-build option, including the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.

“We already know that additional bridge spans will ultimately lead to intense housing sprawl and thousands of acres of habitat, farmland and sensitive landscapes being permanently lost to development on the Eastern Shore,” the conservancy said in a statement this week. “So why no first try to fix the congestion at the existing Bay Bridge as best we can prior to making more space for cars to cross. Travel demand management strategies can include real-time traffic monitoring, more public transit, high-speed tolling and incentives for carpools, ride-share apps for commuters or Ocean City travelers.”

The presentation this week of the four alternatives is just the next step in what will likely be a lengthy approval process. Tier 1 of the study being undertaken now involves the evaluation of the proposed alternatives using a broad brush for engineering and environmental information collection. In Tier 2, specific alignments within the proposed corridors will be addressed and evaluated.

Funded entirely by toll dollars, the Bay Crossing Study Tier 1 began in 2016 and is expected to be completed by 2021. The MDTA has scheduled public hearings in the various communities on both sides of the bay throughout September and October. The next steps include publishing a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and hold additional public hearings in the fall of 2020. The final steps will include identifying the preferred corridor alternative and publishing a final EIS and record of decision, likely by the summer of 2021.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.