Photo: Cheryl Costello

Md. Leaders Clash Over Bay Bridge Construction Impact

Maryland’s chief financial officer is calling for the transportation secretary to immediately stop the Bay Bridge rehabilitation project that’s causing travel challenges for people on both shores of the Chesapeake.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot sent a letter Monday to Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, calling for the entire deck rehabilitation project to be shut down through the fall and winter. He points to a negative impact on commuters to and from the Eastern Shore, local businesses, schools, and residents from West Annapolis, Severna Park, the Broadneck Peninsula, and Kent Island.

Franchot says some Queen Anne’s County Public School students have been arriving to school up to two hours late, and expresses concern about delays keeping first responders from reaching emergencies.

The first Friday after road closures began on the westbound span, traffic spiked at a 14-mile backup, stranding drivers for hours. The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) scrambled to implement cashless tolling and other measures to keep cars moving. While we haven’t seen another 14-mile nightmare, backups at the bridge have been consistently frustrating.

“We’ve seen enough,” says Franchot. “The whole point of government is to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of the people we serve. Which is precisely what is not occurring now on, near and around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.”

Franchot blames poor planning as part of the problem and says that the “makeshift efforts” made by MDOT have failed to provide any real relief to individuals trying to make their way around the Bay Bridge area. In the letter to Secretary Rahn obtained by Bay Bulletin, Franchot says he acknowledges “the importance of public infrastructure maintenance” but also states his concern “that there has not been suitable foresight given, or sufficient steps taken, to mitigate the burden and safety risks associated with this massive project.”

While Franchot believes the project should be delayed by a few months to better plan for the traffic challenges, MDOT’s Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) says the re-decking work is an urgent safety need that can’t wait. And MDTA leaders point out that shifting the work into the high-traffic spring and summer months would cause even more disruption. Whenever the project takes place, road closures are unavoidable, says MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports, in a statement issued in response to Franchot’s letter:

“Regardless of timing, construction of this critical safety project will unavoidably require moving the same amount of traffic with 20 percent less of total bridge lanes and 33 percent less of the eastbound lanes without contraflow (two-way operations).”

Addressing safety concerns in Franchot’s letter, Ports notes that MDTA has met with emergency managers and school bus operators since mid-summer, and continues to do so.

The Comptroller has no direct authority over MDOT, but his office says his influence has made an impact in the past. Franchot’s press secretary, Alan Brody, tells Bay Bulletin, “The Comptroller is one of three members of the Board of Public Works, which approves highway contracts.

The $27 million project will replace the bridge deck surface of the westbound right lane, an also make deck repairs, seal the bridge deck and replace existing lane-use signal gantries and steel rail post. The work was planned for now through May, when construction would be suspended for the high-travel summer season, and then resume for a second round next September through spring 2021.

-Jillian Amodio