State Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot accused the state of botching the rollout of a long-planned Bay Bridge resurfacing project, saying it has created “severe, if not unprecedented” traffic snarls that put public safety at risk and resulted in massive inconvenience for residents on both sides of the span.
A top state transportation official insisted that safety is paramount in the agency’s planning and execution of the project.
Franchot (D) said the only viable option is for the Maryland Transportation Authority to suspend work on the bridge, “regroup,” and restart the project only after the agency has gotten its act together.
His criticism, conveyed in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn on Monday, follows weeks of long backups for both eastbound and westbound motorists.
Long lines of slow-moving vehicles have imperiled public safety response, caused students to be hours late for school and generated general misery for anyone who relies on a car, truck or bus in the area.
“While I recognize the importance of public infrastructure maintenance, it is now obvious that there has not been suitable foresight given, or sufficient steps taken, to mitigate the burden and safety risks associated with this massive project,” Franchot wrote.
“The events of the past several weeks have put the people of Maryland at risk.”
Franchot told Rahn “the only option is to suspend the project for the fall and winter.”
“During this period,” he continued, “I would encourage your Department to regroup, assess what could have been and must be done to ensure a more seamless transition into the project schedule, and implement a comprehensive plan that outlines various traffic mitigation strategies.”
In a statement that echoed go-it-alone complaints that many have lodged at the Hogan administration, the comptroller also called it “imperative” that MDOT “engage all community stakeholders, including local businesses, county and municipal governments, emergency responders and public school systems as you move forward with this project.”
Social media have been ablaze with tales of tedious hours spent traveling microscopically short distances. In one well-publicized incident, an MTA commuter bus, operated by a contractor, left passengers stranded far from home rather than complete a return trip across the bridge to Queen Anne’s County as scheduled.
The comptroller’s strongly worded letter, and a blistering op-ed he wrote for an Eastern Shore newspaper, represent a rare break with the Hogan administration. It comes as the state’s tax collector, who won a fourth term last fall, contemplates a bid for governor in 2022, when incumbent Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) leaves office due to term limits.
In response, James F. Ports Jr., the Maryland Transportation Administration administrator, said in a statement that delaying the project, as Franchot suggests, would only lead to worse traffic jams in the future.
“The safety of Marylanders is our top priority, which is exactly why we are taking action on this urgent safety project,” Ports said. “To delay this work from fall and winter, as the Comptroller suggests, would shift it into spring and summer when traffic is at its peak, only magnifying the disruption that residents are experiencing now.”
MDOT is in the first phase of a two-year $27 million rehabilitation project on the westbound span of the Bay Bridge. Work was to take place this fall and winter, pausing next spring on the cusp of beach season to allow travelers to access all five lanes on the two spans.
As the loss of the right lane on the westbound span began creating havoc, MDOT urged motorists to travel at off-peak times and to get an E-ZPass transponder if they don’t already have one. The agency also instituted cashless tolling, to eliminate the need for motorists to stop at the toll plaza on the western shore.
In his letter to Rahn and the op-ed he wrote for The Star-Democrat in Easton, Franchot emphasized that he understands the need for infrastructure repair and knows such projects inevitably bring delays.
But he said the state completely failed in its efforts to limit the disruption.
“According to the Department’s own admission, adequate planning and preparation were not done in advance of this project,” he wrote.
“This has resulted in makeshift decisions, made literally on the spur-of-the-moment, in a futile attempt to get on top of the situation.”
Franchot posted his op-ed on his Facebook page Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, it had been shared nearly 900 times and generated nearly 600 comments.
It also provoked a lively debate. The Comptroller and his chief of staff, Len Foxwell, responded to several of the people who offered comments.
Facebook user Barbara Lee praised Franchot for urging the state to suspend the project until it has a better plan.
“Besides our QAC elected officials, you are the FIRST to take a stand and for that sir I say thank you very much!!!,” she wrote.
“People could literally die waiting in traffic to get to medical treatment,” added Lindsay A. Thompson. “Thanks for your service.”
But Kimberly Reuling Everson questioned Franchot’s push for delay.
“I don’t think ‘abandoning’ the rehab project is a responsible action,” she wrote. “I’d much rather be inconvenienced for awhile than have a potential disaster because needed repairs were ignored.”
Ports said he expects most motorists are taking the same attitude.
“Most drivers recognize that any highway or bridge project causes traffic delays and disruptions,” he said. “Unlike most highway or bridge projects, there are no other easy options or detours around the Bay Bridge, which is why we continue to work closely with local school systems and school bus contractors, employers in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore, and public safety officials from Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s Counties.”