Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) took to social media on Wednesday to proclaim he will only support one of the possible locations for a new Chesapeake Bay crossing — the proposal to put a new span next to the bridges that currently take U.S. 50 traffic across the water.
“There is only one option I will ever accept: adding a third span to our existing Bay Bridge,” Hogan wrote on Twitter.
“While the federal process requires multiple proposals, the data is indisputable — this option would maximize congestion relief & minimize environmental impact,” he added.
Hogan’s comments came one day after the Maryland Transportation Authority announced that four options will be open to public comment this fall and then undergo in-depth environmental study.
While appearing bold, Hogan’s pronouncement carries legal risks, some observers said.
“It’s surprising that the governor would issue such a statement so early in the [National Environmental Policy Act] process,” said a veteran environmental lawyer familiar with NEPA law. “It creates the impression that the state is pre-selecting a site.”
The lawyer would speak candidly only on condition of anonymity.
“How can you have a preferred alternative” — a top choice — “if they haven’t even embarked upon detailed study?” the lawyer wondered. “It’s premature to have a preferred alternative. They’re nowhere near that.”
A former top official who also would speak only on condition of anonymity said Hogan risks giving ammunition to bridge opponents who might challenge the state in court.
“If [opponents] can find any documents or statements by key decision-makers that said that they pre-judged the process, then you have to do the process all over again,” the former official said. “So I’m not sure why he is saying this.”
But former state attorney general Douglas F. Gansler (D) called such fears overblown, because no governor operates in a vacuum.
“It’s not a dictatorship. There’s a General Assembly,” Gansler said. “And the General Assembly is ultimately going to have a loud voice in where this span is built. And so while the governor has a position, and he’s entitled to have that position, the legislature ultimately has to approve the budget.”
State Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R) applauded Hogan’s embrace of the MDTA option that would put the new span close to the existing Bay Bridge.
“The main thing that we’re trying to do is reduce the congestion on the bridge that we have currently,” said Hershey, who represents several Eastern Shore counties, including Queen Anne’s, where the current spans touch land.
“To reduce congestion and do it at somewhat of a reasonable price, this frankly is the only option that’s out there.”
The preliminary analysis done by the Maryland Transportation Authority projected 2040 summer weekend and non-summer weekday traffic volumes for 14 potential “corridors,” or bridge sites, that ran the length of the bay, from a Harford County-to-Cecil County crossing in the north to a St. Mary’s County-to-Somerset County span in the south.
If the state builds at Corridor 7, adjacent to the current spans, summer weekend traffic on those bridges would drop from 120,000 vehicles a day to 80,000 in 2040, by far the largest reduction.
“Average Daily Traffic” on the current spans on non-summer weekdays in 2040 would dip from 70,000 vehicles to approximately 45,000, again the best of the 14 options studied.
“Corridor 7 results in the least amount of backups at the existing Bay Bridge for both summer weekends and non-summer weekdays,” MDTA’s analysis concluded.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) expressed relief that Hogan’s tweet appeared to take two bridge options — one in the Pasadena area, the other in Mayo, south of Annapolis — off the table. He called them “bad options.”
He said the plan to build adjacent to the Bay Bridge only comes out ahead because number-crunchers included growth that may not occur.
“The plan is based on an assumption that there is going to be development on the Eastern Shore that I don’t think will happen. I think that the communities on the Eastern Shore do not want to be Maryland’s next big development target.”
Hogan first floated the idea of a new Chesapeake Bay crossing during his first term, and the concept drew praise from long-suffering commuters and beach-bound motorists. But any real effort to build a new span is still very early in the process, and it could be years – or even decades – before construction begins anywhere.
Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor, called it “rather odd” that Hogan would opine on the site selection process as the public comment and analysis are just ramping up.
But Eberly, who lives in Southern Maryland, said Hogan is likely channeling the facts as they exist.
“I don’t know that anybody reasonably thinks that you would get approval and be able to move forward on an entirely new bridge separate from the location of the current one,” he said. “So it’s the governor sort of pointing out reality.”
But does saying so out loud now jeopardize the chances that some future governor will get to cut the ribbon on Hogan’s preference — a bay crossing east of Annapolis?
The former top official sees potential peril.
“He is saying he has pre-judged the whole process and he doesn’t care what the EPA evaluation or the environmental impact says. … That makes no sense whatsoever.”