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Transportation

At first of three town halls, officials warn new Bay crossing is still years away

Bay Bridge
The state is studying whether to add a third span to the Bay Bridge. NOAA photo.

For beach-goers who struggle to get across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the need for a new, wider span might seem like a no-brainer. Westbound traffic leading to the bridge on Labor Day, the unofficial end to the summer vacation season, stretched 14 miles at its peak.

In June many transportation advocates applauded Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to set aside $28 million to advance the state’s pursuit of a new Bay crossing. He called the move an important step in reducing summertime and commuter traffic in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties.

But Maryland Transportation Authority officials cautioned on Wednesday that the process of analyzing alternatives and assessing environmental impacts will run well into the future.

They told an online forum that the study made possible by Hogan’s allocation — known as a “Tier 2” study — will likely stretch four to five years. If the state is then able to obtain federal approval and funding for a new bridge or tunnel, design and construction would consume many more years.

In short, relief may be coming, but it won’t come any time soon.

“The Tier 2 study goes into a lot more detail” than the Tier 1 study the state completed in April, said Melissa Williams, head of the transportation authority’s planning and program development office.

“This will include a range of transportation alternatives, a no-build alternative, multiple alignments, crossing types, and modal and operational alternatives — as well as any associated environmental impacts,” she added.

The Transportation Authority owns and maintains the current Bay Bridge spans and is leading the process to expand capacity. Wednesday’s forum, billed as a “town hall,” is the first of three such meetings.

An in-person forum will be held on Thursday at the Kent Island American Legion in Stevensville. A meeting for Anne Arundel County residents will be held next Tuesday, at Broadneck High School in Annapolis. Both sessions run from 6 to 8 p.m.

After studying 14 potential crossing locations, the Transportation Authority decided last year to build a new bridge or tunnel near the existing Bay Bridge spans, in large part because of their proximity to U.S. Routes 50 and 301. But planners still must nail down an exact location and determine how to connect the proposed new structure to existing highways. Federal law also requires that environmental impacts be catalogued and minimized, and the state must acquire any land it would need.

Queen Anne’s Commission President Jim Moran (R), a leading supporter of a new crossing, said the question-and-answer sessions should help the public gain a better understanding of how the process will unfold. He also expects the session to reduce “hysteria” fomented by naysayers.

In an interview, Moran expressed hope that whomever succeeds the term-limited Hogan in January will continue his push for a new bridge or tunnel. “You hope the process goes forward,” he said. “[Democratic nominee] Wes Moore seems like a good guy. Hopefully he surrounds himself with people that know what they’re talking about, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

After listening to the two-hour forum, Jay Falstad, head of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association and an opponent of Hogan’s plan, said the Q&A felt “scripted.” He said participants appeared to be reading off cue cards.

Falstad wants the next governor to take a fresh approach to the project. “After listening to all those canned responses to scripted questions, Wes Moore or (Republican nominee) Dan Cox should feel no obligation to pick up Larry Hogan’s work on this,” he said “It feels very incomplete.”