Many of us who are frequent users of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge are sympathetic to proposals to build a new span. Statewide, thousands of hours are wasted each year as motorists wait in traffic jams. Use already exceeds optimal capacity and is projected to get much worse. And how many tons of toxic exhaust emissions are spewed from tailpipes during back-ups? The case, it can be argued, is a strong one, and many believe a new bridge should be built, even without Federal funding.
The contents of the first of two Biden infrastructure bills will be released later today, March 31. The bill is estimated to cost around $2 trillion. Its enactment might make building a new bridge easier. If it included part of the estimated costs of between $6.6 billion and $15.7 billion, deciding to build a new bridge will become easier. Cost estimates differ depending on where you build it and whether final costs are at the high or low end of the range of estimates for a particular location or type of cross. A bridge-tunnel, for example costs more than an above-water bridge.
Wouldn’t Federal funding make a new bridge a no brainer for Maryland, especially for those of us on the Eastern Shore? Not so fast. We all know that once a new bridge is built, use will quickly rise to capacity. “Build it and they will come,” proved prophetic in Field of Dreams, but could prove nightmarish in the case of a new bridge facilitating the destruction of our way of life. Simply put, the benefit of more tourists and other beach traffic may not outweigh the harm. Personally, I am not ready to see Route 50 widened into an eight-lane superhighway. And I’m not anxious to spend the next decade or so in traffic jams caused by road construction as Route 50 and other roads are widened to handle the increased traffic over the new bridge.
And then there is the issue of climate change. Is building a new crossing consistent with fighting climate change? And because President Biden says the infrastructure bill will include not only traditional infrastructure repairs, maintenance, modernization, and enhancements, but also be part of his climate change agenda, funding for a new bridge could be “a contradiction.”
Environmental groups already questioning the wisdom of building a new span will not be happy about the “Climate Change President” engaging in “hypocrisy.” By most objective measures, the environmentalists will be right. Even with the transition to electric cars, more traffic means more pollution.
Politically, the opposition of environmentalists will pose a dilemma for Senators Cardin and Van Hollen and the entire House delegation except for our own “Handgun” Harris. My guess is that Rep. Harris will stick to his guns and support funding for the bridge while opposing passage of the larger bill. His rationale, if consistent with his record, could be that if a new bridge might facilitate climate change, it should be built.
Another consideration, admittedly speculative today, is whether the revolution in transportation currently taking place could obviate the need for a new bridge. What if autonomous cars could speed over the bridge at much greater speeds and volumes than now deemed feasible? What if the long-awaited flying cars are developed? (Do not hold your breath). Could these new technologies be game changers? Hopefully, the assessments now underway will help develop answers.
So, what do we want to see happen? First, read the draft environmental impact statement that is currently open for public comment through May 10, 2021. Once public comment is completed, that feedback will also be worth reading. New information on how the new span could impact our area. is likely to become available. In this regard, it is worth noting that one of the options runs near St. Michaels. Because this option is by far the most expensive of the three “build” options remaining, it seems unlikely to be chosen. But these days, who knows?
The other thing to do is to watch the soon-to-be-introduced Biden infrastructure bill. No details yet. And while the bill is not likely to “force” Maryland to build the bridge, how funds are made available for states will be important. It is likely that if funding is made available, the state will control how the money is used. Thus, the process currently underway to evaluate options, including the no-build option, remains important.
Hopefully, environmentally sound, sensible answers will be found from the current lengthy process. Is it naïve to hope for that, as well as an easier trip to Annapolis?
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and occasionally goldendoodles.