Bridging the Gap

What, if anything, should Maryland do about the Bay Bridge? Now that the process for doing something, or not, is gaining steam, there is a lot of less than nuanced discussion around the process, so I want to share my opinions on what we should do.

Let’s first make an assumption: the existence of the Bay Bridge spans has been a good thing and we want there to be a bridge going forward. I think under almost any measure virtually everyone would agree to this statement. It has opened the eastern shore to commerce, tourism, and has increased the quality of life both for residents on the eastern and western shores. If you don’t agree with that assumption, you should probably stop reading now. With that assumption out of the way, where are we going?

Much ink has been spilled about the “dreaded traffic congestion” on the bridge and approaches through Annapolis and Kent Island and virtually all discussion around the future plans revolves around the need to solve the congestion problem. In the traffic engineer parlance this is referred to as “congestion mitigation” and is always the reason used for adding capacity through additional lanes. For sure there are issues, but this facet is not the only issue to consider. We need to look at all of the motivations that frame any action and what solutions are likely to result from them.

Ultimately, all decisions revolve around who is going to pay the cost of any action since we are talking numbers in the billions (with a “B”) of dollars. If the state of Maryland wanted to pay the full freight, they could just do it, following whatever process they want, not conceptually different from building a small bridge/culvert across a stream on a state road. However, Maryland does not have the money – or chooses not to allocate it – so like every other large highway project, they go after federal highway funding because it’s “free”. This decision has a whole set of perverse incentives.

If projects want federal funding, the must follow the federal process which has many steps to it before a bulldozer shows up on site. We know Maryland is doing this because they are following the National Environmental Policy Act. This if from the Draft Environmental Impact Statemen, the first major step in the process:

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is federal legislation that applies to projects receiving federal funding or approval. NEPA requires Federal agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement that assesses the impact of a major action on the human and natural environment. NEPA requires consideration of a reasonable range of alternatives and ensures that agencies and the public are informed and involved in considering the potential effects of such action on the environment.

–Bay Bridge Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)

I have no beef per se with NEPA other than it comes off as a process to be gamed. And I believe this is where we are. If you read the DEIS you will see most of the scoping options are patently ridiculous because they are either impractical or make little sense from a transportation standpoint. The corridors that were selected for more analysis are 6 (MD 177 – Mountain Rd), 7 (US 50 – existing), and 8 (MD 214 – Central Ave), and of course the “no build” option. Clearly there are two that are complete strawman as there is no infrastructure on either side of the bay and the crossings are long, so they are complete not starters. That leaves the existing crossing as the only viable option. So the question is what to do?

The Hogan Administration has said it will not accept any solution that is not a “third span”:

The part of this that is ridiculous to me is the desire for more capacity. Let’s face it, most of the time, there is plenty of capacity. Of course there are times when there is beach traffic or commuter traffic, but under nominal circumstances that’s perhaps a few hours on several days a week. All more capacity is going to do is cause induced demand with people deciding to live on the sprawling eastern shore or decide to travel to the beach during peak hours. Furthermore, the Hogan Administration’s position on tolling is incoherent; for someone who is predisposed to market solutions, reducing tolls makes absolutely no sense and is just political pandering in my opinion. With the change over to all electronic tolling, demand management techniques can be utilized to temporally smooth out demand. And before anyone screams about how that disadvantages people who “have” to commute (again, in my opinion that is a choice, but a discussion for another day), electronic tolling can be used to provide discounts to residents if that is public policy we want to enact to not disproportionately disadvantage those folks.

So what is the real problem with the current bridge configuration? During non-nominal circumstances, primarily adverse weather events where the north span can not run two way traffic, there can be exceptional backups. Because the two spans were built more than 50 years ago the bridges and the surrounding infrastructure are incongruous, specifically there are 6 through travel lanes on either side and only 5 bridge lanes. This requires a reversible lane on the north span that only works in good weather, albeit dangerously. Add to that there are no breakdown lanes, so the entire crossing is very fragile. One little hiccup, a fender bender or even just a slow driver, and the entire system grinds to a halt. This is the problem that is ripe for solving.

The solution to me is obvious and it is essentially “none of the above”, rather just replace the existing spans with a new bridge with a congruous number of travel lanes and emergency lanes to provide some resilience for adverse events and maintenance. If we get back to my original assumption – that the bridge is an inherent good – this is the quickest, cheapest and in my opinion the most sensible thing to do that will address the main problem. Spending money on more capacity is a solution for the prior century. Two other compromises I think are reasonable:

1. A shared use path as primarily a linear park, but could also be for long distance bike riders/bike commuters. Let’s not repeat the mistake made for the Nice bridge replacement (eliminating the shared use path to save 6%!) with unintended consequences. As note below, this has been a great amenity across the Hudson River in NY.

2. Because we have no real idea where the future of transportation lies, we can “scar” the design to accommodate rail infrastructure if that turns out to be desirable.

So here is what I submitted for the DEIS. If I had to speculate, this solution is what we will end up with, so here it goes for the record. It will be interesting to see.

I have several comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement:

Whatever option is chosen, there MUST be a suitable facility for pedestrians and bicycles. This should be at least a 15′ wide multiuse path that can safely accommodate walkers, runners and cyclists simultaneously. It must include observation areas overlooking the bay. This was done on the Mario Cuomo (was Tappan Zee) bridge in NY. It is spectacular and a huge tourist attraction in addition to allowing bicycle commuting.

Make it adaptable for rail. If there is demand for rail service to the eastern shore, a portion of the travel lanes should be able to be converted to carry the weight and stresses imposed by 2 rail tracks/cars. We have no idea the future of personal automobiles so this other mode must be possible if conditions change.

Given the end of life of the existing two spans on corridor 7 is less than 50 years, and as time goes on maintenance costs will increase rapidly, rather than build a “third” span, just reconstruct the crossing in a single span now. The crossing should have 3 travel lanes in each direction to match the lanes on both approaches, shoulders on each side of the 3 lanes for breakdowns and the multiuse path on the south side. Ultimately, a new bridge satisfying these criteria and removing the old spans immediately after would save maintenance costs in the long run, allow for the facilities required above and provide the sought automobile congestion relief.

–Comments submitted to the Draft EIS

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