SANDY POINT, Md. — Every year, 38 million vehicles drive over its spans: They are tractor trailer drivers ensuring food gets to the grocery store, minivans packed with brightly colored towels and antsy kids who want to know if they are there yet.
They trust that the aging spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge are well cared for and will get them safely to where they are going.
Within the next few years, to ensure that promise is kept, transportation officials in Maryland will begin determining how much longer the Chesapeake Bay Bridge can wait until a third span is built.
“We’re putting the Bay Bridge ahead of the queue for a life cycle cost analysis,” said Harold Bartlett, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority.
That study, which could begin as soon as late spring, would tell engineers and budget wonks at what point the cost of repairing the bridge would be more expensive than replacing it.
It would also explain what projects need to be undertaken until then to keep the Bay Bridge safe for travelers.
This study wouldn’t be the first time the state has taken an in-depth look at the bridge’s future.
In 2006, a 19-member task force took on the issue after planners said traffic on the two spans would increase by 40 percent by 2025.
Concerns over possible 12-hour delays also contributed to the year-long investigation, which outlined four zones for a future span, but gave no clear winner.
Those four areas included a bridge north of the current location, adding another span to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and two locations south of the bridge.
The task force called the issue of adding more spans “complex, controversial and compelling.”
To bolster discussion about a future span, Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-36-Queen Anne’s, whose district surrounds the eastbound side, has introduced a bill in the Maryland General Assembly to study any environmental impacts of construction.
“It’s easy for people to stick their heads in the sand and say they don’t want a third span, but a no build has environmental and economic consequences as well,” he said.
After 61 years in operation, he added, the two-lane span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, as well as the younger three-lane span, are a “lifeline” for the entire Eastern Shore.
And while some residents joke about getting rid of the bridge, its effect on the economy and lifestyle for those living on both sides are irreversible.
“It did bring a lot of positive economic change, but it also brought a lot of cultural stress,” said Memo Diriker, executive director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University.
The Eastern Shore had never been linked to the rest of Maryland the way the Chesapeake Bay Bridge allowed for in the ensuing years. It brought along with it some confrontation between the more relaxed lifestyle of the Eastern Shore and the more hectic mindset of those from the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
As cars became faster and Route 50 underwent upgrades, it allowed for an increasing number of people to travel inland and through the peninsula to Ocean City. It also allowed for farmers and manufactures to directly ship west, instead of having to send produce or feed or poultry north through Delaware.
Once the bridge was built, Diriker said, agriculture and tourism grew, allowing other parts of the economy to hire more people and expand.
“Not only was there a change in the magnitude of the economy, but also the direction of the economy,” Diriker said.
The accessibility also increased property values, which put more money into county government coffers, in turn for more money to be spent on infrastructure and education.
But there were also some drawbacks to the easier accessibility that the bridge brought, including an increase in traffic jams on the Eastern Shore, more people starting to commute farther and a growing reliance on cars.
Amy Owsley, deputy director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, said a couple years ago the group began looking at what a sustainable transportation policy would look like.
“What we learned is if you build more road infrastructure, you don’t get less traffic, you get more,” Owsley said of the report from TND Planning Group. “We began thinking, how can we solve this really new challenging issue using new thinking rather than old thinking.”
The proposal that came out of those meetings was a comprehensive approach that would implement telecommuting centers to alleviate congestion when possible, bolster bus and carpool accessibility, putt ferries back into the equation and revive discussion of improved train service.
As far as a future span of the bridge, Owsley said the only way she or the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy would support a third span is if it’s built to replace one of the existing spans and has options for more than just car traffic.
She conceded that trains may never be part of a bridge across the Chesapeake, but said lanes dedicated to buses and carpools should be.
Regardless of where a bridge will go, what it will look like or what types of traffic it carries, it’s safe to say there will be plenty of discussion before a groundbreaking begins.
“There is definitely a growing need, but it’s not critical yet,” Diriker said.
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