In October, Hogan ordered the work be accelerated, saying he was “furious” about the “sometimes unbearable backups” that had ensued. During the worst delays, traffic stacked up 14 miles and swamped local roads on both sides of the bridge for hours.
The four-mile bridge will also have all-cashless tolling by summer — another part of Hogan’s order to reduce backups, state officials said.
“No one likes to spend additional time sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic to try to cross the bridge,” Hogan said at a news conference beside the westbound span.
Having the right-lane closure stretch into two years, as originally planned, was “unacceptable to nearly everyone,” he said.
Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Director James F. Ports Jr. said the state saved time by requiring the contractor to work around the clock, through Thanksgiving and on the entire span at once rather than in stages. Crews are ripping up and replacing the right lane’s concrete deck, which state officials said had deteriorated so badly that it had become unsafe. Working through Thanksgiving saved four to five weeks, Ports said, because the contractor didn’t have to spend time taking down and putting up barriers and re-striping lanes to fully open it for holiday traffic.
“When the governor said get it done, we came up with a way to get it done,” Ports said.
Authority officials said they are still negotiating with the contractor over how much the accelerated work will add to the project’s $27 million cost. Some of the additional costs for round-the-clock crews, Ports said, could be offset by the project’s overall shorter duration.
The all-cashless tolling will help keep traffic on the eastbound span moving by preventing vehicles from stopping at toll booths and make it easier to convert the westbound span to two-way operations during busy eastbound periods, said William Pines, the authority’s chief engineer.
Motorists without an E-ZPass transponder will be billed by mail via a photo of their license plate. The first two of 11 toll booths were removed Tuesday.
Word of the western span’s earlier-than-anticipated full reopening spread quickly in Queen Anne’s County, where the bridge touches down on the Eastern Shore at Kent Island. Local roads were swamped much of the fall, residents said, as westbound motorists tried to skirt backups on Route 50 approaching the bridge, particularly on weekday mornings and Saturday and Sunday evenings.
The timing of a pre-summer reopening is key because the bridge’s daily traffic volume swells to 45,000 vehicles in the summer, up from 28,000 daily in the winter, according to state figures for the eastbound span.
“People are going to be celebrating,” said Nicole Varney, co-owner of Island Flowers in Chester, about four miles from the bridge.
Varney said she had to close her shop several Saturdays this fall, when returning beach traffic made local roads impassable, and 10-minute floral deliveries could take more than an hour. She said local traffic eased when beach traffic died off after Christmas, but she and other residents had been bracing for its return along with warmer weather.
“We were anticipating that from April to October, our local roads would be completely unusable again,” Varney said.
“I’m dancing,” Julie Hartman, co-owner of Atelier Clean Beauty SalonSpa, also in Chester, said upon hearing the news. “I’m really hoping it’s true because it’s been tough.”
Hartman said she lost $350 to $1,000 in business on the worst days, when customers had to cancel or reschedule appointments because they couldn’t get to the salon.
“We’ve had people call and say, ‘I’m trying to get there, but GPS says I’m going to be an hour and a half late,’ ” Hartman said.
James J. Moran (R), president of the Queen Anne’s Board of County Commissioners, said he hopes the state will use all-electronic tolling to charge higher prices during peak times, such as on busy beach weekends. That additional revenue, he said, could be used to fund the next stage of a state study about where to build a third span, the only way both he and Hogan say the state can significantly alleviate bridge backups.
He said he also hopes Maryland Transportation Authority Police officers will patrol Route 50 exit ramps to keep weekend motorists returning home from the Eastern Shore off local roads, or allow local police to do so.
“We’re happy they’ll have it done within a year,” Moran said. “We know we have to suffer through [bridge] traffic, and we understand the need for this work. But we still need help with controlling traffic on Sunday nights.”
Authority officials said they couldn’t yet say whether their “before summer” timeline for reopening the entire westbound span and implementing all-cashless tolling would mean before or after the busy Memorial Day beach weekend because the concrete work depends on good weather.