By: Eric Myers, Captial News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Gov. Larry Hogan, R, said Wednesday that he was “furious” about the traffic backups around the Bay Bridge in recent weeks that have resulted from a resurfacing project on the westbound span’s right lane.
During peak hours, residents of Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties, along with other commuters, have incurred significant delays since Sept. 24, when the two-year, $27 million projects began.
Though Comptroller Peter Franchot, D, called for the project to be suspended until the state assesses how to minimize residual traffic, Hogan and Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn warned that delaying the project any further could have “catastrophic and life-threatening” repercussions.
“This is an issue, and it means the long-term safety of the people who cross this bridge,” Rahn said. “It would really be irresponsible of us to neglect this bridge any longer.”
Hogan and Rahn both said that years of critical repairs and maintenance to the bridge have been delayed and deferred. As a result, the westbound right lane has reached the end of its service life, Hogan said.
Engineers found that 75 percent of one section of the lane is patched and deteriorated, Hogan said. In most of the lane, half of the area is patched and deteriorated.
The governor said that it’s projected that putting this project off further would cost upward of $200 million and take five years to complete.
Franchot called it “unacceptable” that the traffic is causing school buses to arrive late, tying up emergency vehicles and impacting businesses negatively. On the first Friday, after the project began, media reports indicated a 14-mile backup with about 10 hours of delays.
“I guess it comes down to whether we want to do this project the right way, or just press on with it because it’s already beginning,” said Franchot, who said he wasn’t aware that the bridge was nearing failure.
To expedite the process of the project, Hogan directed the Maryland Department of Transportation to ensure the contractors are working 24 hours a day and mentioned the idea of using fast-drying concrete on Wednesday.
Rahn said that the Maryland Department of Transportation is working with the contractor, Wagman Heavy Civil Inc. of York, Pennsylvania, to synchronize crews to work on the whole bridge at one time.
With the work occurring above the bay, there are environmental concerns that only further complicate the project’s flow.
For example, the contractor is water-blasting under the rebar that crisscrosses the roadbed, but to stay out of the Chesapeake Bay, the water needs to be vacuumed up by a vacuum truck that’s stationed in a lane where traffic is coming. Therefore, that task usually happens during off-peak hours, Rahn said.
“This is a very elaborate ballet that has to occur a couple of hundred feet up in the air,” Rahn said. “It means that we have to keep traffic moving, it means that we have to have contractor’s equipment moving around and doing work in a very confined space.”
Wagman Heavy Civil directed all media inquiries to the Maryland Transportation Authority, who did not respond for comment as of Wednesday afternoon.
Another component of Hogan’s plan of action is to eliminate the toll plazas and implement all-electronic tolling at the bridge as soon as possible. Rahn said that they’re working to see how long that may take, but estimated a delivery no sooner than sometime next year.
On Sept. 27, three days after the project began, the state waived tolls as a whole because eastbound travelers did not have their customary access to one of the westbound lanes due to the suspended two-way operations, creating a 14-mile backup, according to media reports.
In response, the state implemented cashless tolling on Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 10 p.m. When traveling on those days, drivers would travel through the toll plaza and later receive a bill in the mail. The rate will not change from the typical cash toll, Rahn said.
The state’s transportation agency did not respond to requests for comment on when the toll plazas would go cashless on a daily basis.
The Maryland Transportation Authority has encouraged customers to obtain a free E-ZPass transponder to make the toll process more efficient. Additionally, the current toll rate at the bridge for those traveling with an E-ZPass is $2.50.
When modernized, all-electronic tolls are implemented at the bridge, the E-ZPass rate will drop to $1.25, and cash transactions will be cut to from $4 to $2, according to the transportation authority.
Other initiatives that Hogan mentioned included engineers and administration officials finding solutions with affected counties, actively seeking increased input from community members and stakeholders and ensuring that state law enforcement help improves traffic flow.
“We’re playing catch-up,” Franchot said Wednesday. “We should have done all of this beforehand.”
The right-lane closure on the westbound span is expected to continue through April 2020, with the possibility to extend to May, except during the Thanksgiving holiday, according to an MDTA press release.
From 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., the entire westbound bridge will be closed, relegating traffic to a one-lane operation per direction on the eastbound span. In the fall of 2020, and spring of 2021, similar closures will occur before the project’s estimated completion in August 2021, according to the release.
This rehabilitation project is occurring as the state explores options to potentially add a third span. The original span was built in 1952, and the westbound bridge opened in 1973. Hogan said neither of those bridges was designed for the amount of travelers crossing the bridges today.
Hogan has stated that the only site he will accept for a third span is where the existing two spans are located, while community members and officials debate the environmental impacts of that possibility.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman has advocated for alternative methods, such as using ferries, to offset traffic problems instead of building a third span.
Hogan didn’t mince words Wednesday in voicing his opposition to that plan.
“Can you imagine the days-long backups on both sides waiting for the ferry,” Hogan said. “That is not a practical or realistic solution.”
Pittman’s office did not respond to comment as of Wednesday afternoon.