A bridge too far

December 16, 2005

Here's a dose of reality for anyone tired of long lines at the Bay Bridge: Get used to it. At least that's the word from the 22-member task force that's been studying the matter. The committee was asked to explore the possibility of a second bridge crossing, but not to recommend any specific solution. Members say their research makes it pretty clear that there isn't an easy answer available anyway. While the need for a better way to get across the Chesapeake Bay is obvious, so are the objections of any community where a bridge might actually be located.

It would be tempting to dismiss the whole enterprise as a bit of a boondoggle, a taxpayer-financed public relations campaign courtesy of the Maryland Department of Transportation. But, in fact, the agency deserves credit for laying out a complex problem so clearly and openly to the public. Resistance to a new Bay Bridge is now well documented. And so are its potentially deleterious effects on rural communities and the environment.

Whether a bridge is located at the existing site or at sites to the north or south, local people don't want it. This is particularly true in places like Kent and Calvert counties where charming villages could easily become supplanted by a bridge-fueled wave of cookie cutter subdivisions, strip shopping centers and fast-food restaurants.

But it's also clear that the volume of traffic on U.S. 50 is destined to grow - and not just during the summer. The communities near the Bay Bridge are among the fastest developing in the state. On weekdays, commuters represent more than three-quarters of the traffic. On the average summer Saturday, 92,000 vehicles cross the bridge. By 2025, weekday traffic will be about as bad.

Admittedly, doing nothing about the bridge will eventually make the drive from Baltimore to an Ocean City condo about as pleasant as a root canal. But there are ways to make the existing bridge operate more efficiently. Charging higher tolls at peak hours, for instance, seems inevitable. The economics of a Chesapeake Bay ferry line might also make a lot of sense under those circumstances - even if one could never handle as much traffic as a bridge.

We don't relish the thought of Bay Bridge gridlock in the years to come, but restraint has its benefits. Slowing the pace of development on the Eastern Shore - even unintentionally - could be one of the best things the state can do to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay. And there are clearly more pressing needs for the state's limited transportation dollars. That may be small consolation for the frustrated vacationer, but it's the right direction to go.

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