Md. panel begins look at another bay bridge

Plans are in earliest stage, but opposition heating up

July 18, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

There is no good place to build a new Chesapeake Bay bridge, no place that won't cost billions, no place that won't take 20 years to plan and construct, no place that won't prompt a tooth-and-nails battle with nearby residents, slow-growth forces and environmentalists.

But leaving things the way they are with one crossing would make current rush-hour tie-ups seem like child's play, and weekend backups could routinely stretch 12 miles in the doomsday gridlock predicted by traffic experts, who foresee more than a 40 percent increase in the number of vehicles using the existing bridge by 2025.

More than a half-century since the Bay Bridge spanned the Chesapeake and 30 years after its three-lane twin spurred a quickening march to and from the Eastern Shore, a 19-member state task force is taking tentative steps to find another crossing.

"All I know is that it's complicated, expensive and controversial," said O. James Lighthizer, a former state transportation secretary who co-chairs the task force. "There is no easy answer, and we aren't going to see any decision for years."

State planners say Maryland's population will increase by more than 1 million in the next 20 years, and that would mean 135,000 vehicles on a summer weekend day instead of the 95,000 that now cross on a Saturday or Sunday in the summer, according to the task force.

To exacerbate the current traffic nightmare, a complete re-decking of the 53-year-old eastbound span, the "old bridge," is due sometime in the next 15 to 20 years -- a prospect that chills the hearts of travelers and commuters who have endured construction delays on the 1973-vintage westbound span since 2002.

Panel members, a geographically balanced cross-section of state and local lawmakers from bay-front counties who were appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last winter, say they're surprised how quickly the issue of a new bridge has stirred opposition.

"We are taking baby steps in what is going to be a marathon process before anybody is even making recommendations on this," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican who represents Queen Anne's and Kent counties, two locations mentioned as possible bridge sites. "We are not even remotely ready for a decision. We're to gather information and then put together a report."

Members say the panel isn't even charged with picking a site or determining how best to make a crossing (although most are apparently ruling out a tunnel as too expensive and ferries because they couldn't haul enough cars).

Four broad zones

The starting points of discussion, however, are focused on four broad zones that divide the upper bay and include Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, as well as their Eastern Shore counterparts, Kent, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester.

To transportation planners, those look like a baseline for state officials who eventually will have to choose a site. To residents in counties that could be affected, the diagrams seem to be aimed at them.

In Kent County, Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey began making a stink when she heard that Kent County was included in the northernmost bay zone. She has already started distributing an incendiary petition that says state officials are considering a "massive bridge and interstate-like corridor ... the biggest threat in the 363-year history of our county."

"This is one issue where you'll see people join hands and stand in opposition," she said. "This county's united because this would destroy our historic district, destroy farmland and rip apart the fabric of our community." Bailey is planning a Web site and arranging a bus trip to Annapolis on Aug. 10 for the task force's next meeting.

Some task force members are already saying that Kent County is an unlikely choice for a new bridge because of the cost of building an 18-mile road at $50 million to $100 million a mile between the bay and U.S. 301.

`Chicken Little award'

Republican Del. Richard A. Sossi -- who represents Kent County as well as Kent Island, where the current 4.35-mile spans make life difficult for him and constituents who live on the island -- says jokingly that he plans to nominate Bailey for a state "Chicken Little, the sky is falling, award."

"I just do not see anything more for Kent Island," said Sossi, who has lived there for 30 years as traffic gradually increased to the point where islanders are left virtually housebound on weekends. "You can't put 20 pounds of feathers in a 10-pound bag."

Sossi says the alternative is to build somewhere south of the current bridge, which links Sandy Point and Kent Island, a choice that he says could siphon traffic from Southern Maryland, the Washington suburbs and Northern Virginia. That leaves zones 3 and 4, which include Talbot and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore and Anne Arundel and Calvert counties on the west side of the bay.

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