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Maryland selects Bay Bridge as best site for new span

A study found that building a third span within two miles of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge would relieve the most traffic

Maryland is studying where to build a third span to free up traffic congestion at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Maryland has selected a two-mile-wide corridor at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as the best spot for an additional span, saying it would relieve the most traffic congestion for weekend beachgoers and Eastern Shore commuters, according to a five-and-a-half-year study released Thursday.

The Maryland Transportation Authority said its chosen corridor would tie a third span into Route 50 on both sides of the bay. Including feeder roads, it would stretch 22 miles, from an area west of the Severn River Bridge in Anne Arundel County to the U.S. 50/Route 301 split in Queen Anne’s County on the Eastern Shore.

Adding a third span there would alleviate a “substantially greater” amount of traffic and affect fewer neighborhoods than two locations considered to the north and south, the study found.

The selected corridor has “substantial environmental resources,” the state said, but more detailed analysis would be needed to determine how an additional crossing would affect them. As the shortest option at a narrow point of the bay, the study said, it “would potentially result in fewer environmental impacts to sensitive aquatic resources … such as open water, fish habitat, and oysters.”

Citing traffic relief, study identifies Bay Bridge as best location for a new bay crossing

The state’s selection was outlined in the proposal’s final environmental impact statement, which confirmed the conclusions of a draft study released last year. The Federal Highway Administration has approved the state’s selection by issuing a “record of decision,” which would be required for federal construction funding.

However, the official selection doesn’t mean the bridge will be expanded anytime soon.

Authority spokesman John Sales said a more detailed analysis, expected to cost $28 million and take four to five years, will identify a specific alignment within the chosen corridor, but it has no funding. The state also hasn’t said how it would pay for design and construction, which are estimated to cost between $5.4 billion and $8.9 billion in 2020 dollars, depending on the amount of road widening or new approach lanes required.

The study has raised questions about the best way to alleviate notorious traffic congestion across the Chesapeake Bay without increasing development pressure on Eastern Shore farmland or damaging environmentally fragile areas. Public officials representing communities along Route 50, which leads to and from the bridge, also have said a wider crossing would encourage more motorists to use it, ensnaring local residents in more backups.

Gov. Hogan: ‘There is only one option I will ever accept’ to relieve Bay Bridge backups

The bridge typically carries about 118,600 vehicles daily on summer weekends and about 68,600 on non-summer weekdays, according to the state.

Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, said the study is “fundamentally flawed” because it didn’t adequately explore other traffic-relief options short of an expansion, such as tolls to encourage crossing at off-peak times. It also didn’t consider the pandemic’s long-term effects on travel.

“We don’t quarrel with the idea that, if there’s going to be another bridge crossing, it should be at the same location,” Falstad said. “But we don’t believe the state has fully examined the no-build option or any other options that might reduce traffic.”

Maryland narrows study of new Chesapeake Bay crossing to three corridors

Falstad also pointed to an analysis that AKRF, a Hanover, Md., environmental planning and engineering firm, did for his group that found a new span would relieve traffic only “temporarily” because it would attract more motorists and spur more sprawl development. For example, that study said, traffic on the bridge’s second span increased by 37 percent within five years of opening in 1973.

The state’s analysis, the private review said, also didn’t properly account for the “likely significantly higher” cost required to widen Route 50 and local feeder roads.

Copies of the state’s study are available online and at local libraries.