Is a new Bay Bridge coming to Kent County? If a standing-room crowd that filled Chestertown Firehouse Thursday night has its way, the answer will be a resounding “No.”
The meeting, organized by the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance (KCPA), was meant as a way to inform residents of the process by which the state of Maryland will make its decision on a bridge, and to motivate opponents to get involved in stopping the route from coming through Kent.
Janet Christensen-Lewis opened the meeting by introducing KCPA board members and the elected officials in the audience. Present were Kent County Commissioners Ron Fithian and Bill Short, Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, Councilmen Marty Stetson and David Foster, Judge Harris Murphy, Clerk of the Court Mark Mumford, and representatives sent by Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Andy Harris. Christensen-Lewis then gave an overview of the mission of KCPA, calling the landscape of Kent County “a natural oasis” that must be preserved. She said the Maryland Department of Transportation is “using a 20th-century model” to solve 21st-century transportation problems. A bridge from Baltimore to Kent County would not be “harmonious with the land or the people,” she said, turning the county into a suburb of Baltimore. Large portions of Kent County’s fertile farmland would be turned into roads with the inevitable strip malls–picture Kent Island on Rt. 50. Housing developments would most likely follow quickly–picture Middletown, DE. And once lost, once paved over, this beautiful and fruitful farmland cannot be restored.
The idea of a bridge from the western shore to Kent County goes way back. The first known proposal for a bridge to cross the bay was in 1907 but nothing came of it until the 1920s, Christensen-Lewis said. Plans were proceeding in 1927 but the project was derailed by the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent arrival of the Depression. A revived proposal, in 1938, had to be put aside when World War II broke out. When the idea again became possible, after the war, the route chosen went through Kent Island, taking advantage of roads already existing to serve the ferry service that previously brought passengers across the bay, The bridge was completed in 1952, and a parallel span was completed in 1973. But with the increase of traffic over the years, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) now seeks a way to reduce strain on the current bridge – and thus the call for a new bridge – which would not, she said, be a solution in the long run.
Christensen-Lewis stated that we can stop this, but “The time to raise hell is now,” she said.
Elizabeth Watson then took the microphone to outline theMDTA process and timelines for major decisions and ways Kent County residents can work to influence them. A new five-million-dollar study sponsored by the MDTA is looking at possible locations for a new bridge across the Chesapeake Bay. The study began in fall 2017 and will continue through 2020. MDTA is considering sites along the entire length of the Bay from north to south. The study will identify 10-15 possible corridors for the crossing by fall 2018. From these initial possibilities, MDTA will select a single location for a crossing, including a bridge plus approaches (access highways and bridges) on both the eastern and western shores of the bay. MDTA’s final decision will come in 2020.
Public comment will be accepted at all phases of the project, but once the choice of a route is made, it will be all but impossible to overturn it. Therefore, she said, it is essential to apply pressure while there is still the chance for it to affect the process.
There is a good possibility that a Kent County location could be the final choice as it is almost directly across from Baltimore. However, if the study concludes that the bridge should originate somewhere other than Baltimore, then other routes — including a third span parallel to the existing two between Sandy Point and Kent Island — become possible. That is what the MDTA study is currently working to determine and why it’s important for residents to make their opinions known now. Some southern counties, including Dorchester, have said they would welcome a bridge to their shores. In Queen Anne’s which has the Route 50 traffic from the current bridge, opinion is mixed, Watson said.
A map for a Kent County option (above) shows three possible routes connecting a new bay bridge to Route 301; one going through Kennedyville and connecting to 301 near Millington, another routed slightly up the Chester River from Chestertown, and a third downriver from Chestertown. The above map, prepared by KCPA, assumes a third span originating in Baltimore and ending near Tollchester in Kent County.
Watson said the MDTA had received some 400 comments by mid-December 2017, which she said the agency characterized as an “unprecedented” high number. She said KCPA has prepared sample letters for residents who want to add their own comments. Attendees at the meeting were given the samples along with a pre-addressed envelope to mail the signed letter. They can be downloaded from the KCPA website. It is not too late to send letters, she stressed. A large volume of letters will definitely make both politicians and government officials take notice. But, she added that Kent County residents have basically only nine months to make their opinions known as the three recommended routes will be announced next fall. The address to send letters about a new Chesapeake Bay bridge, pro or con, is “Ms. Heather Lowe, Bay Crossing Study, MD Transportation Study, 21310 Broening Hwy., Baltimore, MD 21224.”
Suggested wording for one of the sample letters reads: “Dear Ms. Lowe: Building another bridge to the Eastern Shore is the last thing the Eastern Shore needs. New highways encourage more travelers; more travelers encourage more development, and more development will destroy the very nature of the ‘Shore that attracts people to visit. As the Baltimore Sun op-ed article said, “Let the Eastern Shore be.” Don’t build a new crossing over the bay. Sincerely,”
An online comment form that you can fill out is here.
While Maryland government sources list the bridge itself as an estimated 4 billion-dollar project, Watson said that it would probably be more like 20 billion when all the associated costs are considered, including buying the land and constructing the connecting roads. If some landowners were unwilling to sell, then their land would most likely be acquired through eminent domain at an estimated fair market price.
The Kent County route has its supporters, who see it not only as a more direct route from Baltimore to Ocean City but as a quicker route for trucks headed north. Those who favor a new bridge believe that it will also have the benefit of reducing wear on the current bridges, where truck traffic is 10 percent of the volume. It would also open up Kent County to development much in the way Kent Island has become a suburb of Annapolis. Given that some 57 percent of the county is prime farmland, that could be a disaster to the agricultural community that makes up one of Kent’s strongest components. On the other hand, the Baltimore Sun printed an editorial Jan. 2, this year, titled “Let the Eastern Shore Be,” that strongly opposed the Kent County route.
Watson listed actions residents opposed to the Kent County route can take, In addition to writing letters, actions can include displaying yard signs – there were several at the meeting with the legend “No Bay Bridge to Kent” – donating to KCPA, and passing the word to friends and acquaintances who may be unaware of the threat posed by the bridge.
Watson then invited public officials to comment, and Ron Fithian took the floor to list actions taken by the commissioners. Fithian said the commissioners testified against a General Assembly bill that would repeal a provision by which five of the nine Eastern Shore counties must approve any new toll road, bridge, or highway on the shore. He said state Sen. Mike Middleton, chair of the committee studying the bill, called it “a terrible precedent.” Middleton’s probable opposition gives hope that the bill would fail. “I feel good about the situation,” Fithian said, implying that he thought the bill to repeal the Eastern Shore counties right to approve or disapprove any new toll road on the shore would not pass. He said that such a bill would unfairly silence the voices of those directly affected.
Short said the commissioners are doing their part to oppose the bridge coming to Kent County and said it was good to see so many residents at the meeting. Both Short and Fithian testified against the repeal before the Maryland Senate Finance Committee. All nine Eastern Shore counties have sent letters opposing the proposed Senate bill 34.
Mark Mumford, during an audience comment period, said he swore in the 1960s that he would be the first to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent any bridge from coming to Kent County. He said he was ready to do it again if such a route is approved. He urged residents to “get to your delegates” and let them know you oppose a Kent County crossing.
More details of the proposed bridge crossing and links to other relevant websites are available on the KCPA website. Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, which organized the standing-room-only meeting, is a 501(c)3, all-volunteer, non-profit group. KCPA merged last year with Kent Conservation, which was founded in 1970 and has been a leader in local conservation ever since. KCPA plans more meeting to keep residents informed. An Op-Ed article titled A Bridge to Somewhere by KCPA stalwarts Judy Gifford, Janet Christensen-Lewis, and Elizabeth Watson published earlier this month in the Chestertown Spy, looks at some of the stated and unstated reasons for a third Chesapeake Bay bridge.
The current study–which will identify the recommended and two preferred-alternate routes for a third Chesapeake Bay bridge–is a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study. The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) owns, finances, operates and maintains the Bay Bridge, officially titled the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge. More information on the study, which is scheduled to end in 2020, can be found at $5 million Bay Crossing Study.
Correction: The above article was edited on 30 Jan 2018, to clarify that 10 to 15 possible bridge locations will be announced in fall 2018 while the final choice will be determined sometime in mid-2020. As originally published, the article said that three possible sites would be announced in fall 2018.
Photo gallery below. Photography by Jane Jewell