Transportation officials make plans to build an additional bay bridge

Project would take 15 years, cost between $1.5 billion and $3 billion

October 22, 2003|By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser | David Nitkin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Transportation officials have begun planning for an additional bridge across the Chesapeake Bay, a project they say is needed because of growing traffic and anticipated repairs to the Bay Bridge.

State officials say they would like to complete the project in 15 years, at an expected cost of $1.5 billion to $3 billion.

By then, they say, the two-lane eastbound span of the Bay Bridge may need to be closed so its driving deck can be replaced.

Planning for the project has begun even as state transportation officials warned yesterday that they will have to raise more than $1.8 billion from some combination of fees or gas taxes to meet needs over the next six years.

A new bridge - or possibly a tunnel - either adjacent to the current structure or at another location would provide an alternate route to handle traffic growth and allow for repairs to proceed smoothly, officials said.

"I would be remiss in my duties as secretary of transportation by not addressing this forthright," said state transportation chief Robert L. Flanagan in an interview yesterday.

A study of the starting points and destinations of bridge drivers has been completed - the first stage of the planning process, said Thomas L. Osborne, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the Bay Bridge.

The data will be plugged into a model of bridge congestion, he said, to determine the need and the best location for a new bay crossing.

"At this point, we don't have specific alternatives," Osborne said. "Jobs like this take eight to 15 years."

But he said officials are working from options studied in the past: adding a span at the current location of the bridge; or building a northern crossing between Baltimore and Kent counties or a southern crossing between Calvert and Dorchester counties.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that a bay crossing was not among the most pressing transportation needs.

"At some point, some administration is going to have to deal with it," Ehrlich said."It is not at the top of our agenda, or at the middle of our agenda."

Significant environmental concerns and community opposition would greet any plan. Coastal land on Maryland's Western Shore is heavily populated, while the wetlands of the Eastern Shore are sensitive.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the Ehrlich administration should look equally hard at other solutions to easing congestion - such as public transportation that encourages drivers to leave their cars behind.

"Those are other alternatives rather than assuming, `Oh, we have traffic problems. We need another bridge or highway,'" Schmidt-Perkins said. "We're looking for an approach that is broader than just building the highway."

Bay Bridge traffic is growing at 2 percent to 3 percent yearly, said Jack Cahalan, a transportation department spokesman.

That growth rate - and the increasing popularity of the Eastern Shore for homeowners - is making repairs more inconvenient. The state is now resurfacing the three westbound lanes of the bridge, a project that is causing traffic tie-ups.

Officials are working on other short-term measures to reduce congestion, Cahalan said. Those include creating a half-mile-long EZPass-dedicated toll lane on the eastbound side, plus improving the merge area after tolls have been paid. Also in the works: a pilot project that would add blinders to the bridge to prevent drivers from slowing to gaze at the water.

Federal environmental laws will require the state to examine a tunnel as an alternative, but such a project is considered unlikely because it would cost more than three times as much. Financing has not been seriously discussed, although it is certain that a new bridge or tunnel would charge tolls, and the state could borrow money based on expected revenues.

But talk of the money needed for other road projects is reaching a critical point.

The Ehrlich administration told a task force yesterday that it needs $300 million a year in additional revenue to pay for the transportation needs of the state - then handed it a "menu" of largely unpalatable taxes and fee increases from which to choose.

Among the options: a $60 increase in the yearly cost of registering a passenger car or a 10-cent increase in the state's 23.5-cent gasoline tax.

Also on the list of options presented by the Department of Transportation were an increase in the sales tax rate and an expansion of that tax to cover gasoline. But soon after they were offered, state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. appeared to take them off the menu by noting that Ehrlich had ruled out increases in those taxes.

That appeared to leave the gas tax, the registration fee and a rise in the titling tax - or a combination of the three - as the only options still on the table.

The presentation by transportation officials edged the administration closer to making one of the most difficult decisions of Ehrlich's term: what mix of tax or fee increases it will recommend to the General Assembly.

But task force Chairman William K. Hellmann said no decision will be made until hearing from the public at meetings beginning next week.

Officials say the state has $17 billion in transportation needs over the next six years, but only $6.5 billion to pay for them.

Sun staff writer Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.

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