Transportation Secretary Grilled Over Bay Bridge Delays

The Bay Bridge and nearby highways were jammed for 10 hours on Friday. Maryland Transportation Authority photo

Friday’s Bay Bridge bottleneck – which led to backups miles long and lasted more than 10 hours – could have been mitigated if top-level state officials had more input on massive Maryland Transportation Authority spending projects, members of the Board of Public Works said Wednesday.

“I can guarantee you that there would have been more mitigation planned in advance if something like this had come before the board,” said Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who greeted Maryland’s Transportation secretary with an indignant speech and a list of questions.

Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), who was filling the chairman’s seat in place of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), chimed in with his own frustration.

Rutherford noted that the $27 million for the two-year bridge deck rehabilitation project was not required to come before the Board of Public Works, which also includes Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), for approval. Instead, projects by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which maintains, constructs and oversees the state’s toll facilities, are approved by its own board.

“There are certain things that don’t come to the Board of Public Works, that should,” Rutherford said.

In a prickly back-and-forth with the lieutenant governor, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said it was mere speculation that Board of Public Works oversight would have avoided backups.

Rahn apologized to motorists who were stuck in the morass, but said there were a number of unexpected factors that led to the traffic snarl, including unseasonably high temperatures still beckoning Marylanders to the beach and traffic incidents around the bridge.

During the project, the westbound span of the bridge will have narrower lanes and periodic closures. Similar closures will occur in fall 2020 and spring 2021, with an estimated project completion in August 2021. The westbound right lane will be fully reopened for the summer travel season.

The state had posted advanced notice of the closures and planned for traffic similar to a summer weekend, but volume on Friday was closer to that of a busy holiday, Rahn said.

“It was a miserable day for people trying to cross the Bay,” he said.

The state suspended tolling around 8:20 p.m. on Friday evening to get cars moving and the backup finally cleared around 11:20 p.m.

Franchot said the bridge coming to a standstill for hours was unacceptable.

“The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is not just a luxury – it’s an unconditional economic, social and public safety necessity,” Franchot said. “When commuters can’t get to work on time, when first responders can’t make it to the scene of an emergency and when products can’t make it to markets in a timely manner, our entire state suffers.”

Earlier this week, the state announced that cashless tolling will be used at the Bay Bridge between noon and 10 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays to help ease congestion; travelers will be sent bills in the mail. The state will also introduce two-way traffic on the westbound span during severe backups, but such a move will require dramatically reduced speeds, Rahn said.

Board of Public Works members peppered Rahn with other questions, including whether the project could have been postponed to colder months. The secretary responded that the project already had been delayed from a September start to October. Further delays might not be possible because the new roadway material must be laid when the temperature is around 45 degrees outside.

Kopp and Rutherford encouraged state officials to consider allowing state employees to telework or alter work hours and to expand commuter bus options to reduce the number of cars on the bridge.

Franchot expressed concern that the Transportation Authority hadn’t planned for cashless tolling ahead of the project and even now plans to implement the program at two other state facilities before the Bay Bridge.

“There wasn’t enough advanced planning done,” Franchot said. “…Somebody dropped the ball.”

Rahn said state officials were “doing everything we can” to address the unforeseen problems. “I assure you we will do everything we can to address this moving forward.”

Later on Wednesday, Franchot announced that his office would expand telework and flexible work hours for agency employees, and would give four hours of administrative leave to employees who carpool to work with at least three colleagues for 10 work days.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.

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