With the summer beach season approaching, Maryland officials are promising a spate of measures intended to reduce headaches for motorists crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge -- and for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who could suffer politically if chronic congestion continues to worsen.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said in an interview last week that the state has "very firm" plans to complete by Memorial Day repaving that has kept the center lane of the westbound span closed since January.
Officials are working on initiatives aimed at easing miles-long Bay Bridge backups like this one, on a Friday in October.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
That work, needed to fix widespread cracking that resulted from a botched paving job, has lengthened commutes from the Eastern Shore. The problem will be compounded if work is not finished before families start weekend pilgrimages to Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach, Del.
"Failure is not an option," Flanagan said.
Officials also are working on initiatives aimed at easing miles-long backups that can occur during peak summer travel times. Among the responses: a hotline for updated traffic reports; increased marketing of E-ZPasses, which allow motorists to avoid the lines at regular tollbooths; and a public relations campaign encouraging vacationers to "go early" and "stay late," spreading out weekend demand on the aging, four-mile bridge that carries almost 25 million people a year.
The stakes for the Republican governor were put in blunt terms this month by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who contended with beach traffic during his tenure as governor.
"He's going to pay a hell of a penalty for it if you mess up on the Bay Bridge this summer," Schaefer told transportation officials during a meeting of the Board of Public Works, on which he and Ehrlich serve.
In an interview, Ehrlich said he considered the warning from Schaefer, a frequent ally, to be friendly advice.
"In his own way, he's trying to be helpful," Ehrlich said. "He lived through this, so he knows."
He compared the task of keeping summer bridge traffic flowing to plowing roads in winter. It is the type of government service that no one notices when it goes well. When it goes badly, everyone remembers, he said.
Ehrlich said his top aides met last month in Cambridge, Md., with the operators of major tourist outlets, encouraging them to create incentives for motorists to travel at off-peak hours.
"As Ocean City gets more popular, it's a nice problem to have, but it's a problem," Ehrlich said he told them. "We told them, 'We need your cooperation.' "
Schaefer is hardly the only elected official close to Ehrlich who has expressed frustration with traffic on the bridge.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) wrote this month to the governor, harshly criticizing the efforts of his transportation officials to address the "horrendous traffic conditions" on the bridge.