Friday, March 8, 2019

Is a New Chesapeake Bay Crossing a Bridge Too Far?

Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD) announcing 2nd Maryland Chesapeake crossing in August 2016

Governor Larry Hogan (R-MD) has championed studying a new crossing of the Chesapeake Bay for Maryland.  The existing Bay Bridge (officially dubbed “The Gov. William Preston Lane Memorial Bridge” was completed in 1952 at a cost of $45 million  to connect the Eastern shore of Maryland with the heart of the state (adjacent Annapolis and proximate to Baltimore and Washington DC). A parallel three lane span was added in 1972 for $145 million.  The shore-to-shore 4.35 mile length is one of the world’s longest over the water structures.

When the Chesapeake Bay bridge was conceived in the 1930s, it was intended to augment connectivity to the lower Eastern Shore.  It turned out that the Bay Bridge spurred the tourist industry at coastal Ocean City, Maryland.  To a lesser extent, the US 301/50 route can be a lesser congested Eastern Seaboard alternative to the heavily trafficked I-95. A new crossing is projected to cost $6.78 billion and may take a generation to complete, if it is not blocked.

It used to be that most communities would rejoice in announcements of infrastructure as a harbinger of progress and economic improvement.  But there has been a generation of progressive politicos who have sought to slow many infrastructure expansions under the guise of environmentalism and to tilt towards  “smart growth” (which usually gravitates towards urban options).  

Another impediment to economic expansion projects is social justice community activists, as was recently demonstrated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY 14th) et ali. who chased away 25,000 high paying Amazon HQ2 jobs in New York City because of the impact on the underprivileged residents in Queens by giving too many corporate tax breaks.

To prognosticate about a new Chesapeake Bay bridge crossing, one must assess the underlying  motivations for the crossing, consider opposition groups arguments to discern how it would locate and shape the project, and assess the feasibility of the endeavor.  Prima facia, the three leading rationales for another crossing would be: 

  1. To alleviate current congestion (oriented towards tourism on the Bay and the shore) 
  2. To spur economic growth on the Eastern shore aside from agriculture or tourism; or 
  3. To foster urban expansion along the Bay with bedroom communities.  

It is vital that the aim of the infrastructure is clear, as the “Free State” of Maryland does not have the money to burn like California to have an expensive white elephant infrastructure project like the high speed train boondoggle.  

In August 2016, Governor Hogan shepherded $5 million into studying the issue of a new Chesapeake Bay crossing.  Some of these funds included a survey to assess the inclusion of mass transit components to such a project.  Unlike previous studies which only considered expansions and reconfiguration of the Bay Bridge (2015) or just a handful of options (2004), the current study considers 14 crossings to Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  These prospective one mile wide corridors span from Havre de Grace in the north to the southern St. Mary’s County. Several choices were routed through parks or wildlife sanctuaries, which is rife for spawning environmentally inspired lawsuits, but may serve as Overton Window wedges.  A couple of options butt against US military installations, which poses its own problems with Uncle Sam.

Preliminary map of new Chesapeake Bay crossings, Feb. 2019

The “green” inter-modal option of  a transit crossing appeared to be a bust as only 1.4% would seek using mass transit Chesapeake crossings on weekends and 4.4% on weekdays. The focus on traffic intimates that alleviating current and prospective congestion leans towards option 1. There is room between the current spans of the Bay Bridge to squeeze in three more lanes in a new span but they would also be likely to be narrow lanes without a hard shoulder.  These  might help with the flow of traffic once on the Bay Bridge, but there is the problem with the gateways, which may be hard to expand and that contributes to congestion.  Sunday traffic is expected to grow to 125,000 cars on a Sunday by 2040 - which is a 31% increase.

If the impetus is to alleviate the swell of weekend beach traffic, southern routes seem optimal, except traffic patterns, logistics and politics.  Depending upon how far south the crossing is routed, this puts traffic pressure on Rt. 2 & 4, which are just four lane highways that are far off the Baltimore and DC Beltways. Then there is the small matter of the length of the crossing. One route would have the bridge be 22 miles long, which indubitably would make the project much more costly than current projections. Not to mention, a far southern Chesapeake crossing would require a bridge height of 186 feet for shipping instead of the 100 feet further north.

A second possible driving force for a new Chesapeake Bay crossing would be to stimulate economic development. Clearly, tourism is a key component of the Eastern shore economy, whether it is vacations to the shore at family friendly Ocean City or maritime merriment on the Chesapeake.  That being said, much of the Eastern shore is agriculturally oriented and not particularly prosperous, such Cecil County and the Northern part of Kent County. Crossings near Aberdeen could stimulate some industrial expansion and have a synergy of having a northern connection to US 301.  This option would probably not alleviate beach traffic congestion but might not engender as much political opposition. Another drawback is routes would cross through a state park and necessity crossing around (or through) Aberdeen Proving Grounds, which is a US Navy facility and requires significant environmental remediation.

A third motivation for another Chesapeake Bay crossing might be to facilitate urban expansion.  Since Baltimore’s suburbs abut the Chesapeake, constructing a bridge from Anne Arundel County to Rock Hall or Tolchester Beach within easy reach of urban commuters in prospective Eastern shore bedroom communities.  This connection makes historic sense as prior to the advent of the Bay Bridge, Tolchester Beach was a day trip getaway by ferry for Baltimoreans. But in the seventy years that have past, there is a marked cultural shift between the shores.  Those on the Eastern Shore who appreciate the bucolic character of their locale would bristle at the bustle effectively being bedroom communities to Baltimore, with all of the association urban problems. This crossing place would also endanger historic landscapes around Rock Hall and Chesterton. 

This appeal to history to thwarting big projects worked in thwarting building Disney’s America near Haymarket, Virginia (near the Civil War Bull Run Battlefields) in the early 1990s. However, there was one key difference between horsey-country around Haymarket and the pastoral Eastern shore–who’s ox was being gored?  

Disney certainly had commercial muscle but this was pitted against those are monied owners of horse farms or who fancy themselves as gentlemen farmers yet commute to Between the Beltways.  The added congestion would impede well connected people getting to their country retreats where they live and exercise political influence.  It is dubious that Eastern Shore anti-growth groups have such political sway, and those interests would be pitted against those interests want to play on the Eastern Shore. 

Community organizing on the “West Bank” might also thwart crossings in that area.  Local politicians note that if a site is selected in Anne Arundel County that major opposition would be engendered to keep further congestion out of their area. 

How does this get resolved?  That’s that $6.78 billion question. The results of the $5 million environmental impact study will be released in 2020. Nevertheless, one should expect environmental court challenges. The study allotted 10% of its budget anticipating litigation.  Green challenges may be more of a Trojan Horse for no growth. 

The process also requires assent of the majority of Eastern Shore counties.  There will be public hearings during the spring of 2019 to identify corridors to be retained for analysis.  This would be followed by a final environmental impact statement in the winter of 2020.

 Anti-growth opponents such as the Kent Conservation & Preservation Alliance suggest spending that bridge-full of funds to bolster livable communities which obviates the impetus for long distance commuting, especially across the Chesapeake Bay.  That is wishful thinking, especially if facilitating tourism is the driver to the project. Other community activists might be open to another crossing but with a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) nuance.  

While this seems like parochial politics, it does impact the District of Calamity (sic) because of its proximity to the Nation’s Capitol, as many DMV denizens like relaxing on the Eastern Shore. But in a broader view, it illustrates a riptide of public policy.  Environmentalists and Smart Growth (translated “No Growth) interests pitted against those who want to keep easy access to their Eastern Shore playground and politicians who want to grow the state’s economy through infrastructure expansion.

Let’s just hope that something is complete before the Bay Bridge needs to be replaced by 2065.