OCEAN CITY – Federal transportation authorities last week gave preliminary approval for a third bridge over the Chesapeake Bay in a corridor adjacent to the existing spans.
For the last few years, the Maryland Transportation Authority has been exploring options for another Chesapeake Bay crossing. Options explored have included a new bay bridge in the area adjacent to the existing spans along Route 50 between Anne Arundel County and Queen Anne’s County, the preferred option of the Maryland Transit Authority and Governor Larry Hogan.
Other options have included a new crossing in southern Maryland connecting that area of the state to the lower Eastern Shore, or a crossing well to the north of the existing bridges. Last week, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and Record of Decision naming the alternative that follows the existing Route 50 corridor, or Corridor 7, as the favored option under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
It’s important to note the results of the NEPA study preferring the existing Corridor 7 as best alternative for the location of the new span was just the next step in what will be a two-tiered study process. The first phase was a broad review that explored the potential impacts of the many alternatives on the environment and on the communities on either side of the bay a new bay bridge route could potentially traverse.
The second phase of the two-tiered study will take a deeper dive into project impacts, potential costs and funding opportunities for the estimated $9 billion project. Five years ago, state lawmakers approved funding for the first phase of the study, but no funding is currently in place for the second phase. For now, however, the existing corridor between Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties is the preferred option for state and federal officials. In a release issued this week, the FHWA outlined the process by which the agency reached its FEIS and Record of Decision.
“The bay crossing study evaluated a range of alternatives, including a no-build alternative, four modal and operational alternatives and 14 corridor alternatives to provide expanded traffic capacity, and additional access across the Chesapeake Bay to improve mobility, travel reliability and environmental responsibility,” the release reads.
In the release, FHWA officials explained how the final record of decision was determined and the existing Corridor 7 was the favored option.
“The FEIS also details the rationale and information supporting the selection of Corridor 7 as the preferred corridor alternative,” the release reads. “Through an alternative screening process derived from the study’s purpose and need, the study concluded that the corridor containing the existing Bay Bridge – Corridor 7 – would have the most positive impact on reducing traffic at the Bay Bridge when compared to the other alternatives and would improve access and mobility in this essential transportation corridor.”
While the impacts of a new bay bridge will be felt most acutely in the bookend counties on either side, a future new bridge over the Chesapeake is intrinsically linked to Ocean City and the rest of the Eastern Shore. Earlier this year, the Mayor and Council approved a resolution in support of the preferred option at the request of Queen Anne’s County officials.
The original two-lane bridge was completed in 1952, and at the time was the longest continuous over-water steel structure. The parallel span was added in 1973 and the two bridges remain in the same place today. According to the resolution, the five lanes of the Bay Bridge that currently cross the Chesapeake Bay have not been adequate to effectively manage peak period traffic for many years, as evidence by the chronic backups in both directions on most weekends.