The Maryland Transportation Authority held an open house meeting on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge study, Sept. 24, at Kent County High School. While well-attended, the event disappointed many residents who expected an open forum where they could present their views on the proposed routes for a new bridge, including one that would cross Kent County.
The format of the meeting consisted of a video presentation on the current status of the studies for a new bridge crossing, a number of display boards summarizing the process and its conclusions to date, and written comment sheets for residents to offer their opinions. There were MDTA staff members available to answer questions one-on-one, and a number of public officials on hand to interact with residents. Among those attending were Delegates Jay Jacobs and Steve Arentz, County Commission President Tom Mason, County Administrator Shelley Heller, Rock Hall Mayor Dawn Jacobs, Chestertown Councilman Rev. Ellsworth Tolliver, and Clerk of the Circuit Court Mark Mumford.
The open house was the first of six to be held at various locations on both the Eastern and Western shores. According to an MDTA news release, all the open houses will present the same information in the same format, and there will be no speakers or official verbal presentation at any of them. Staff will be present to answer questions. There was also no opportunity for audience members to address the crowd. To see the display boards that will be shown at the meetings, click here.
The stated purpose of the open houses is “to discuss preliminary alternatives” for a new bridge crossing identified by the Tier 1 study under the National Environmental Protection Act. The study identified several two-mile-wide corridors for an additional crossing “to improve mobility, travel reliability and safety at the existing Bay Bridge.” The study, conducted by the MDTA and the Federal Highway Administration, also took into consideration “financial viability and environmental responsibility.”
The study began by identifying 14 corridor alternatives, chosen according to several criteria including connection to peninsulas or “long stretches of Chesapeake Bay shoreline,” avoidance of the mouths of rivers or other large bodies of water as well as towns and developed areas, and connection of a Western Shore freeway or major state highway to US 50, US 301 or US 13 on the Eastern Shore. Other considerations included the length and complexity of the proposed crossing and of the roadway connections on both sides of the Bay, and the “environmental resources and sensitive lands” it would affect, directly or indirectly. A “no-build” option was also included in the study, although it was not mentioned as a possibility on the comment sheet attendees were asked to fill out.
Using these criteria, the corridor alternatives were narrowed down to three. The northernmost, Corridor 6, would connect state route 100 near Pasadena to US 301, passing near Rock Hall and Centreville; it would require a new Chester River bridge near the mouth of the river. Corridor 7 would essentially build a third span alongside the existing ones on routes 50 and 301. Corridor 8 would take a southern route from Crofton in Anne Arundel County to near Easton, in Talbot County. According to the study, Corridor 7 would do the best job of shortening travel time on summer weekends, relieve congestion on the existing bridge, provide the best diversion route, and be more compatible with existing land-use patterns. Gov. Larry Hogan has publicly stated that he supports only Corridor 7.
The MDTA also examined “modal and operational alternatives” including ferry service, buses, and a rail line to Ocean City. While many residents have expressed support for such alternatives on the grounds that they would reduce automobile traffic and its related pollution, the MDTA concluded that these approaches would remove 1,600 or fewer cars from mid-summer traffic on the bridges. These approaches might still be considered as supplements to a new bridge, but they are not being considered as viable solutions to the main problems the bridge is meant to solve.
John Sales, public affairs manager at MDTA, said that the results shown at the open house are “just the beginning,” with considerably more detail to be firmed up before any decisions are made. Tier 1will continue with environmental impact analysis, as well as a closer look at the three corridors under study. According to the MDTA news release, there will be a round of public hearings in fall 2020, after which MDTA will publish the results of their analyses and recommend the preferred corridor alternative. That report is anticipated by the summer of 2021. At that point, the decision goes to the Federal Highway Administration, which could authorize a Tier 2 study, including a financial plan. That process would likely take several more years.
Del. Jay Jacobs said he was disappointed that people “didn’t get to go up to a microphone” to make their opinions heard. He said he had heard “all kinds of opinions,” but on the whole, he thought that most Kent County people were against the bridge coming here. A lifetime Rock Hall resident, Jacobs said he had been “pretty sure all along” that the bridge wouldn’t be coming through Kent County.
Mia Mason, who has announced her candidacy to run against Rep. Andy Harris on the Democratic ticket, said the time scale of the project meant that sea level rise will be a prime factor both in available routes and in the appeal of Ocean City.
Several residents said they were disappointed at the meeting, which they said essentially duplicated information on display at an earlier MDTA open house at Kent County Middle School. This reporter heard “I didn’t learn anything new” from several attendees. A fair number of people left when they learned there would be no opportunity for the public to speak. However, many attendees took the time to view the display boards, ask questions of the MDTA staff, and it appeared as if the majority stayed to fill out comment forms.
Upcoming MTDA open houses are scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 1 at Middle River Middle School; Wednesday, Oct. 2 at Anne Arundel Community College; Thursday, Oct. 3 at Talbot County Community Center; and Wednesday, Oct. 9 at Kent Island High School. Visit the MDTA website for times and exact addresses.