A Maryland task force is looking for ways to alleviate the notorious traffic that clogs the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a study that could eventually lead to the construction of another bay crossing.
A new bridge, which would be a massive, expensive and controversial project, is still only an idea that wouldn't come to fruition for many years, officials said. But as traffic worsens, it may be inevitable, said O. James Lighthizer, co-chairman of the 23-member task force appointed by Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.
"Something has to be done to enhance the capacity of traffic crossing the Chesapeake Bay," said Lighthizer, a former Maryland transportation secretary. "The question is what it is. To do nothing, which is an option, will not be a politically acceptable alternative over a period of time."
The original bridge was built in 1952, and about 20 years later, when Anne Arundel's population had grown to about 300,000, a second bridge was built next to it. Those spans cannot be expanded to handle more vehicles, transportation officials said.
The current average weekday bridge traffic is 61,000 vehicles, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. That is expected to grow 41 percent, to 86,000 vehicles, by 2025. On Saturdays, average traffic volume on the bridge is expected to jump 42 percent, from 95,000 vehicles to 135,000.
On heavy days, traffic delays on the bridge last up to six hours. In 20 years, delays could double, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.
"Finding a solution to the growing traffic congestion and needs at the Bay Bridge is essential if we are to continue to thrive as a state," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said in a statement.
Congestion is fueled in part by the growth of communities on either side of the bay. Anne Arundel County's population is expected to grow 8.7 percent between 2000 and 2010, when it would hit 532,000. Queen Anne's County, on the other side of the bridge, is expected to grow 19.6 percent, to 48,500. About 11,000 commuters from the Eastern Shore drive across the bridge and back again each weekday.
"This level of congestion is difficult for bridge drivers, causes increased accidents and can severely impact access to nearby communities," said the Maryland Department of Transportation's "Traffic Needs Study."
The task force is looking at four zones where a new bridge might go. The northernmost would connect Baltimore and Kent counties. The middle two would link Anne Arundel or northern Calvert County to Queen Anne's or Talbot County. The southernmost would connect southern Calvert and Dorchester County.
Some community leaders have decried the idea of another bridge, saying it would bring more traffic and ruin the neighborhoods it would traverse.
"There are land-use issues, environmental issues and financial considerations," Lighthizer said. "Then there are political considerations, and they are all wrapped up in one, and it's insanely complicated."
The task force is not charged with choosing a location for a bridge, or even recommending that a bridge be built, transportation officials said. Instead, its job is to sift through the data, look at possible alternatives and "help engage the public and interested stakeholders in a discussion of how to balance these complex issues to meet identified needs," according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. The task force has held two public meetings. One was scheduled for yesterday and the next is to be held Sept. 15 in Easton.
"There's no easy answer to this very complicated problem," Lighthizer said. "At some point, an elected official, the governor, is going to have to say, 'Okay, the problem is intolerable, or will be very shortly. We're doing 'X' route.' And people will howl and lawsuits will fly around. It will depend on the political will of the governor."
Task force member Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) said: "I know people are starting to get exercised, as they should when you talk about something as massive as this would be. But it's important to keep it in perspective. We're at the very, very early stages -- embryonic, if you will."