A third bridge may be road to ruin

ON THE BAY

Debate: Before another span goes over the bay, questions should be raised about growth in the state.

July 29, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TODAY'S SERMON is about building the fourth Bay Bridge, a question that might finally engender serious discussion on population growth, quality of life, the future of the Chesapeake Bay and other modest concerns.

But wait: fourth Bay Bridge? Didn't The Sun just write about planning the third Bay Bridge?

It did (July 18), and the beginning of Chris Guy's story should be recited as often as the Pledge of Allegiance:

"There is no good place to build [it], 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."

The piece details how Kent Island - where the first span crossed 53 years ago and then the second 30 years ago - especially doesn't want a third one. The first two have already turned it into, well, Kent Island.

The upper Shore - Kent County and Chestertown - really, really doesn't want it because it would turn the area into, well, Kent Island.

Ditto for Talbot County down the bay, whose 600 miles of mansioned shoreline epitomizes the Land of Pleasant Living; also St. Mary's and Calvert counties, where Washington suburbia encroaches heavily.

But it doesn't matter how many people object.

Why? Too many people.

In 20 years, Maryland - now the fifth-most densely populated state - will have a million more residents.

The traffic that on summer weekends creates nasty backups at the bridges will in 20 years be everyday traffic.

Long before then, politicians who are not hard at work to relieve the congestion will be thrown out of office.

So it is inevitable that by 2025, we will, by popular, grudging demand, sacrifice another big chunk of Maryland to a third span.

I don't advocate that we just accept the worst of a third bridge. The gubernatorial panel charged with planning for it should look seriously at ferries, at a limited access rail line like the one Philadelphia built to Atlantic City's casinos, at all manner of carpooling, staggered beach rentals and other ways to manage with the current spans.

And it wouldn't hurt to ask the traffic magnets of Ocean City and Rehoboth how much more they'd like to grow if they had to forgo federal and state subsidies that maintain their beaches and build the roads and bridges to get people there.

But odds are we end up with that third bridge that few will want but most will accept as growth bears down.

And what of growth? Is it as inevitable as our political leaders, news media and even environmental groups portray it?

This brings me to the fourth Bay Bridge. In the 20-year run-up to the third bridge, there's scant hope we can stabilize population in Maryland and the country.

So before we need a fourth bridge (we're talking 30, 40 years out), there's time enough, if we begin now, to take the only course that will preserve the bay and our region's rural amenities.

This current bridge decision is big enough, its negative impacts visible enough, to use as a springboard for a debate that goes far beyond bridges.

What is it, ultimately, we're aiming for? To maximize the number of humans? To double the beach crowds; triple them, quadruple? To split the natural resources pie, the fishing and hunting and solitude of quiet anchorages and the countryside as many ways as possible? To always be pushing schools, air quality, roads and our waters beyond their limits?

Certainly we can strive to behave better - driving less, cleaner cars, better sewage treatment, better zoning, planting trees. These we must do zealously to restore the bay.

But does anyone think that the sheer numbers don't catch up - indeed, might keep us always behind the eight ball? Already 16 million of us struggle to restore water quality to what it was when 8 million lived in the bay's watershed (in the 1950s).

The numbers rule. The state widens Route 32 in Howard County, inducing sprawl, because more cars have created pressing safety problems. Baltimore County armors natural shorelines in Middle River with sterile rock, because so many boaters complain about trees that fall in the water and become hazards to navigation.

Towns on the Eastern Shore struggle to choose between annexing more development than they want or seeing the countryside around them go up in sprawl. A Carroll County judge threatens to jail the planning commission unless it approves development in an area already suffering growth pains. The numbers rule.

Energy is another example of the numbers catching up. Even if all Maryland drivers switched tomorrow to a 50-mile-per-gallon Toyota Prius, population growth would wipe out the reduction in national energy use in a couple months.

But growth is inevitable, right?

Only if you keep saying so. Consider the 1970s. If birth rates and immigration had remained at 1970s levels, the United States would have 50 million fewer people by 2030 than it has today. The bay watershed might have had 2 million fewer people in 2030 than now. Instead, we'll have 3 million more.

Growth is the product of an economy based heavily on new construction of homes and roads, on driving more and more cars, an economy that unquestioningly glorifies new jobs, bringing in more people, as an unalloyed good - an economy that doesn't deduct the loss of natural resources in the Gross Domestic Product, our largest measure of economic "progress."

It's time to talk about the fourth Bay Bridge, about where the state and the nation are headed. I don't mean just to the beach.

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