After decades of lobbying unsuccessfully for a lower Chesapeake Bay bridge, Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein finally has nudged the project, if not quite onto the back burner, at least into the kitchen.

The state Board of Public Works, made up of Gov. Harry Hughes, Finance Secretary William S. James and Goldstein, voted at its meeting this month to spend $25,000 to have a consultant study whether existing traffic patterns, known bottlenecks, projected regional growth and tourist trade are sufficient to justify the building of another Bay crossing from Calvert County into Dorchester County, a Potomac bridge linking Charles County with Virginia's Prince William County, or both.

In the past, when Goldstein has proposed a lower Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Hughes immediately has disavowed the idea and it never came to a vote. This time, however, the board voted unanimously to at least study the options for one or two new Maryland toll bridges.

The study, by Vollmer & Associates of New York, is to determine whether any new bridge could pay operating and maintenance costs within five years of its opening, said Gary A. Smith, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs all toll highways, bridges and tunnels in the state.

Construction costs of the two bridges are estimated at $700 millionis necessary to ease traffic in Virginia's two worst bottlenecks -- just north of the Quantico Marine base and west of the Wilson Memorial Bridge.

Goldstein would like to see another bridge connecting Washington with the Eastern Shore resort areas because of the ever-increasing hordes of tourists. "We've got 21 million visiting Washington and 20 million visiting Baltimore each year . . . if the Bay had been a land mass, we'd have had the roads built long ago," he said.

Goldstein said that the Wilson bridge carries more than 140,000 vehicles a day and that a new bridge would open up all of the eastern part of Maryland.

While Goldstein contends that the southern crossing would open up the state to industry and tourism, some state legislators from St. Mary's County have serious reservations, saying that another bridge would destroy the rural quality of Southern Maryland. Del. Thomas A. Rymer (D-Calvert) wrote Maryland Transportation Secretary William K. Kellmann and Hughes, saying he opposes any plan that would use Route 214 as an access road and increase traffic in the area.

The lower Chesapeake Bridge that Tilghman and Goldstein envision would bypass Cambridge on Route 16 from Taylor's Island and then head south and east to Ocean City and the Maryland beaches.

The proposed southern crossing of the Bay would extend from property now owned by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. adjacent to the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant to Taylor's Island in Dorchester County.

"That bridge would put us in Ocean City in an easy 1 1/2 hours by splitting traffic on the existing bridge and avoiding the drawbridge at Kent Narrows," Tilghman said.

Goldstein said the study is long past due, considering that the original span of the existing Bay Bridge is a two-lane road built in the early 1950s, and that, even with the addition of the three-lane second span in 1973, it is incapable of handling the swelling hordes of tourists.

But Smith said the study in no way commits the state to funding an engineering study or eventually constructing either bridge. He said the New York traffic analysis firm will look at regional economics, current and projected traffic, and the load on existing road networks before making its recommendations.

". . . It may tell us that we don't need to do anything for 20 years, or that we need another parallel span on the existing bridge or a southern crossing . . . or none of the above. We will use the study to set our priorities for the next decade," Smith said.