Another summer, another agonizing season of Bay Bridge traffic.
Admired, cursed and studied, Maryland's sole Chesapeake Bay crossing is being eyeballed again as state engineers try to determine how many years remain in its girders and suspension cables — and whether a third span should be built.
The Maryland Transportation Authority analysis, which just began, revives questions about how to resolve growing traffic woes on a bridge that handles an estimated 30 million vehicles a year and is considered structurally sound but functionally obsolete. It will say if and when a new bridge is needed to handle ever-increasing traffic, but won't address where it might be located.
"The day is coming — and it may be this year — when we have a backup that reaches all the way to Washington," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who with colleague John C. Astle pushed for the study. "Unless you put a wall around the state of Maryland, the amount of traffic will continue to grow each year."
The original two-lane bridge opened in 1952, replacing ferryboats; the three-lane second span opened 40 years ago. Today, they carry 92,000 vehicles on an average Saturday and 60,000 on an average weekday over four miles of water. By 2025, the daily volume is expected to increase to about 135,000 vehicles on an average Saturday and 86,000 vehicles on an average weekday.
A new span would be costly: a minimum of $700 million per mile in today's dollars, according to one state estimate. That's nearly $3 billion.
The tenuous state of east-west travel was made clear during resurfacing projects in the past decade that snarled traffic for hours. And it was reinforced Aug. 28, when a major backup developed during an emergency closure while inspectors searched for the source of "unusual vertical movements" on the westbound span.
Elected officials say that when they pressed the Maryland Transportation Authority for its backup plan after the last incident, they were told that short of hours-long detours through Delaware or Virginia, there isn't one.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get General Assembly approval to study building a third span, Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, and Astle, an Annapolis Democrat, reached a compromise with the transportation authority — or as Pipkin, calls it, "the next best thing."
The analysis "will determine the remaining life of the current spans and when a new crossing should be constructed and operational," he said.
The MdTA, which operates all state toll roads, bridges and tunnels, expects the study to take two years at a cost of $800,000 to $1 million. The study will analyze traffic growth to determine future capacity requirements and will set a schedule for major preservation and routine maintenance of the existing spans.
While the study will say when a new span might be needed, it won't address location, rights of way or environmental impact and mitigation, MdTA officials stressed. Such decisions would trigger the need for a formal review under the National Environmental Policy Act that would cost about $28 million.
To some, the study marks another tiny step toward solving a long-standing bottleneck. To others, it's just a stalling tactic by politicians who don't want to make an unpopular decision and commit to spending the billions of dollars it will take to get from one shore to the other.
"Lawmakers in Annapolis are unable to act until it's a crisis, and even the obvious takes a long time," said Lon Anderson, a lobbyist for AAA Mid-Atlantic who served on a 2005 task force that studied a third crossing. "The task force clearly came to the conclusion that there was a need for a third crossing. The numbers spoke for themselves. The problem is, even if we decided to do something today, it would be 2025 before a single car would cross."
Not everyone embraces the idea of another bridge. Even Eastern Shore residents who commute to the Western Shore and battle traffic daily worry that a quicker crossing would mean more development.
"You get used to it," said Patrick Kelly, who commutes from Centreville to Millersville to work for the Anne Arundel County parks department. "If you add another bridge, you'll get more traffic and be right back where you started from in no time. The commute is the price you pay for living here."
Robert L. Flanagan, state transportation secretary during the Ehrlich administration, agreed. "It's a tough political issue," he said. "On any major problem, you need to have a governor who's a champion of that issue."
One thing is clear. Development on Kent Island and the Eastern Shore means that a third crossing is no longer just about alleviating the misery of beachgoers.
"It's vital for the success of Ocean City and the entire Eastern Shore," said Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan. "The whole Eastern Shore has developed, and more and more people have moved over here. The everyday commerce and transit alone has increased Bay Bridge traffic enormously."
Said Pipkin, "If we're not going to have a third crossing, the business community on the Eastern Shore has to know so it can make decisions and plans based on that."
For Shawn Kimbro, the commute from his Kent Island home to his office at George Washington University in the District of Columbia takes about 90 minutes. An angler and author, he uses the first part of his morning commute to look over the side at bay currents and to pinpoint new fishing hot spots.
On the ride home — often shared with his wife — the almost inevitable sea of red brake lights around the Severn River Bridge means "we may have to stop and have dinner in Annapolis. Tough to take."
For Kimbro, the bigger issue is the Severn River span, which creates snarls long before commuters reach the Bay Bridge toll plaza. That bottleneck emphasizes the difficulty highway planners face. The state can't just erect a bridge next to or between the existing spans without widening the connection roads in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties to 10 lanes.
But three other options outlined in the 2005 study come with their own baggage: a crossing between Baltimore and Kent counties would require substantial land-taking and an upgrade to the road network; a crossing from Calvert County to Talbot County, while a more direct route to Ocean City, would require an upgraded road network and a bridge at least 10 miles long — more than twice the length of the Bay Bridge; and a southern crossing between southern Calvert County and Dorchester County could harm key wetlands.
"Those are the problems, and they haven't changed," Astle said.
Meehan said the recently enacted gas tax increase will help when the time comes to make a decision.
"You have to be in the right place at the right time and be ready to make a decision," Meehan said. "And you have to gain the local support as to where that bridge might come ashore. I think the state has done an awful lot on the Eastern Shore to build bypasses in the last 10 years. I think if we continue to make improvements where they're needed while we work on a long-range plan is the right direction, and that's where we're headed."