Administration Seeks to Rebut Local Leaders’ Criticism on Bridge Repairs

Westbound traffic approaching the Bay Bridge was snarled on Sunday evening, as it frequently is during a bridge re-decking project. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Stung by criticism that they have not been in communication with top officials in Queen Anne’s County regarding the resurfacing of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Hogan administration officials are pushing back, offering a timeline of their interactions with local leaders in recent months.

On Sunday Hogan’s press office provided a lengthy list of meetings, emails and other communications that Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Director James F. Ports Jr. and his team have had with Queen Anne’s County leaders.

The list is in response to complaints from James Moran (R), the president of the county commission, and Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R). The men told Maryland Matters last week that the state Department of Transportation had sprung important developments on the county with little notice and had seemed unresponsive to the massive backups triggered by the re-decking, which began three weeks ago and is expected to last until April.

They also faulted Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) for not becoming more involved in the project, particularly after the chaotic first days of construction, when epic westbound traffic snarls formed, delaying school buses, first-responders, commuters, work vehicles and others.

The list of communications between the state and the county dated back to mid-July, when “MDTA officials met with Queen Anne County Schools and their contractual school bus operators,” according to the list.

On Aug. 6, Ports met with Moran, County Administrator Todd Mohn and the head of the county’s office of Public Works, Steve Cohoon, at MDTA headquarters.

Three weeks later, Ports and his acting chief engineer, Will Pines, briefed commissioners and members of the county’s Annapolis delegation at a County Commissioners meeting.

The next day, according to Hogan’s office, MDTA officials met with Queen Anne’s and Anne Arundel County officials and emergency responders for a “Tabletop Exercise” to plan Bay Bridge traffic management.

The administration goes on to list more than a dozen meetings, phone calls, emails and other communications in September and October with county leaders and Hershey.

It concludes with an Oct. 9 “Bay Crossing Study Open House” at Kent Island High School, regarding a possible third span, “where 262 citizens and eight elected officials had the opportunity to also discuss the deck rehabilitation with MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports and members of the operations and engineering/construction teams,” according to the list provided to Maryland Matters.

On Monday, the agency issued a statement from Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn.

“The MDTA has engaged with county officials and will continue to do so throughout the entire duration of the deck rehabilitation project,” he said.

But Moran dismissed the administration’s timeline of communications with county officials.

“It’s not the number of meetings, it’s the substance of those meetings,” he said. “How can we work together if we don’t have a seat at the table?”

A sign on U.S. 50 Sunday evening tells the grim news about travel time to the Bay Bridge. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Hershey also was not mollified.

“Responses like this do nothing but put people on the defensive,” he said. “Quite simply, we need to broaden meaningful communication, open a dialogue to understand what’s working and not working on a daily basis and come together on this. Pointing fingers isn’t helping.”

Safety concerns

With one lane taken away for resurfacing, county leaders have pushed the state to scale back the use of its “contra-flow” traffic pattern, in which the two lanes that remain available on the westbound span serve two-way traffic.

While contra-flow helps move Eastern Shore-bound traffic and prevents delays from building on the Anne Arundel County side of the span, Queen Anne’s officials object to them, saying they are unsafe and lead to epic backups there.

In a letter on Friday, county leaders again petitioned Rahn to end two-way traffic on the westbound span.

“The Commissioners of Queen Anne’s County hereby disapprove and reject the use of contra flow on the westbound span of the Bay Bridge as a matter of general public safety,” they wrote.

The letter also offers proposals to give the state’s contractor more time, such as keeping the right westbound lane closed over Thanksgiving and extending work to April 30. Those moves would have adverse impacts on Eastern Shore communities, the officials said, but they supported them nonetheless.

On WAMU Radio’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show” on Friday, state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) said MDOT “dropped the ball” in its preparation for the re-decking. He said the state should suspend work and restart in the fall of 2020, after beach season concludes.

“It’s very clear that the planning and preparation that should have been done for this project was not done,” said Franchot, a potential gubernatorial candidate who has been voicing criticism of state transportation officials for several weeks.

“I know they believe… that this is a critical maintenance project. No. It’s a re-decking of the bridge.”

St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly agreed with Franchot that the state did not sufficiently lay the groundwork for a project of this magnitude.

“There needed to be a much more concerted effort to notify drivers well beyond the local area that this significant work was going to take place,” said Eberly, an Eastern Shore resident. “I do not get the sense that that was done to the degree that it needed to be done.”

As for the politics, Eberly said it’s clear that “there is some degree of disappointment among people with the governor, that he seems to be sort out of the picture here. I don’t know that that’s how we wants things to be as he ponders the next chapter of his political life.”

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