The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bridge repairs bring unprecedented traffic misery to both sides of Chesapeake Bay

A traffic jam in Annapolis leading up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on Oct. 10, 2019. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A maintenance project scheduled to keep part of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge closed for most of the next two years has created what many motorists and residents say is unprecedented traffic misery on both sides of the bay.

Autumn backups are rivaling those typically seen on the busiest summer beach weekends. Eastbound backups one recent Friday stretched for 14 miles, snarling traffic across a large swath of Anne Arundel County for 10 hours.

In Queen Anne’s County, where the bridge touches down on the Eastern Shore, traffic headed west on a recent Sunday evening stacked up for almost nine miles. The area now sees Monday morning backups that motorists say have added up to 45 minutes to already lengthy commutes.

“It’s been a mess,” said Jeff Straight, spokesman for Queen Anne’s County Public Schools.

Some of the school system’s buses are regularly delayed up to 20 minutes, he said. Some special needs students who cross the bridge to attend schools in Annapolis and Baltimore have gotten stuck on buses for up to two hours.

“The idea of this going on for two years is kind of sobering,” Straight said.

With about 40,000 vehicles crossing daily, the impacts of closing one lane of the westbound span to replace the bridge deck have rippled far beyond the crossing. Area residents say Waze and other navigation apps have spread the problem by rerouting motorists onto local roads that quickly become swamped.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, declined to make anyone available for an interview.

In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Kelly Melhem said the $27 million project is “critical” to preserve the four-mile bridge, and the transportation authority is asking for “patience and understanding during these necessary safety repairs.”

Melhem said the authority has “consistently warned motorists to expect major delays with this project,” adding that 600 seats remain free on state commuter buses between Kent Island, Baltimore and Washington.

To keep traffic moving, she said, the agency has recently implemented cashless tolls on Thursday and Friday afternoons and evenings and resumed temporary two-way operations on the westbound span to clear “severe” eastbound backups when necessary.

Melhem said the authority is working with local school systems, public safety officials and employers to try to reduce the traffic impacts.

But local officials say the state gave them little warning about the severity of the impacts and has ignored their ideas for how to reduce delays.

Queen Anne’s County Commissioner James J. Moran (R) said he’s heard “crickets” from the authority.

“You don’t get a response,” Moran said at a recent board meeting. “. . . We’re in the dark.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) questioned why the authority didn’t implement all-electronic tolling at the bridge before beginning the work and hasn’t tried adjusting tolls as a financial incentive to travel off-peak.

“It’s been frustrating for us as a county,” Pittman said. “We can’t seem to get much of a conversation going about how we can improve the situation.”

Under a public grilling from Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn apologized for the 14-mile backup in the Annapolis area on Sept. 27. Rahn said the authority “did not have a response already in an advance plan” for what he called unanticipated traffic due to unseasonably warm fall beach weather.

Maryland transportation chief apologizes for hours-long Bay Bridge backup

Franchot has since called on the authority to suspend the project for the fall and winter, until the state works with local officials to better reduce the traffic fallout. The authority has said doing so would make backups worse by pushing work into the busier spring and summer months.

Moran and other public officials say they’ve heard from residents so worn out from increasingly unpredictable bridge commutes that they’ve quit jobs or planned to move closer to them. State government agencies and some local employers have begun to offer condensed workweeks and encourage Eastern Shore employees to work from home.

Businesses near the bridge say backups are keeping customers away, as local residents try to stay out of the spillover traffic and motorists heading to and from the Eastern Shore remain in the queues.

Sarah Maldonado said she passed nine-mile backups on westbound Route 50 and adjacent Main Street as she headed in the opposite direction to work on a recent Sunday. She said business that evening at Fisherman’s Inn, a restaurant in Grasonville where she’s the manager, was off by almost 25 percent.

“Usually [returning] beach traffic backs up, but it moves,” Maldonado said. “It might be crawling, but it moves. This wasn’t moving. … It was literally the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

Workers who live five miles away spent an hour getting to the restaurant, she said.

“Every time the phone rang,” Maldonado said, “we knew it was another employee saying they were stuck in traffic.”

The problems started in late September, when the authority closed the right lane on the westbound span for the repairs. The state also narrowed westbound Route 50 to two lanes nearly two miles before the bridge, pushing the bottleneck further back.

That left two, rather than three, westbound lanes for weekday commuters and Sunday evening drivers returning from the shore.

The closure also affected eastbound traffic because the westbound span previously was converted to two-way traffic at peak times, giving eastbound drivers an additional lane. That particularly helped on Thursday and Friday evenings, when Eastern Shore visitors join commuters.

The longest eastbound backup came on the first Friday after that traffic was limited to its own span. The delays prompted the authority to take the rare step of lifting tolls for several hours until traffic cleared after 11 p.m.

Study: A new span close to Bay Bridge would provide most traffic relief

Anne Arundel County Council member Amanda Fiedler (R) said backups in areas near the bridge were the worst she’d seen in 40 years.

“I don’t think we’ve ever anticipated a scenario like that,” Fiedler said. “It was gridlock — and ‘gridlock’ is an understatement.”

To try to prevent a reoccurrence, the state implemented cashless tolls from noon to 10 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays so motorists don’t have to stop at the toll booths. Those without an E-ZPass are billed the $4 cash toll by mail without the usual additional fee.

The state also resumed temporary two-way operations on the westbound span when needed to clear severe eastbound backups.

Both changes have helped ease eastbound traffic, motorists and public officials say. However, they say, the occasional two-way operations have made westbound traffic worse because it leaves those motorists a single lane that quickly backs up into Queen Anne’s just as schools and workplaces let out.

Because the westbound span’s two lanes have been narrowed, the authority has prohibited trucks and other large vehicles from using it in either direction during two-way operations. That has left them parked on the eastern side of the bridge for several hours at a time.

Maps of sites for an additional bay crossing rile Md. residents

Regular bridge commuters say they hope traffic improves as temperatures fall and fewer tourists join the fray.

Delaware resident Sharell Henley, who drives to the Washington region for sales appointments, said she recently enrolled her 8-year-old daughter in a $77 per week child-care program because she can no longer guarantee when she’ll get home.

Henley said she is also trying to telework more and has begun leaving home by 3:30 a.m. to ensure she’s on time to 8 a.m. appointments.

“I’m not leaving it to chance anymore,” Henley said one recent morning while filling her gas tank a few miles east of the bridge.

Matt Nagel said the project has lengthened his days hauling sand and stone from the Eastern Shore to concrete plants and construction sites on the other side of the bay.

Nagel, who makes two round-trips over the bridge daily, said eastbound Friday backups that used to start in the late afternoon are now underway by lunchtime. On a recent Monday morning, he said, he got stuck for 45 minutes trying to head west.

“We work 10- to 12-hour days anyway,” Nagel said recently as he stopped at a McDonald’s on Route 50 in Stevensville. “So any delay isn’t good.”

Some traffic watchers questioned why the state started the project in late September, when beach temperatures and large weekend events still draw crowds.

Melanie Pursel, president of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said businesses are worried the delays will scare off the fall and spring visitors that Eastern Shore communities have worked for years to attract.

“I think it’s just kind of stunned everyone, how bad the backups are,” Pursel said. “We all knew it would be an inconvenience, but this is pretty dramatic.”