ANNAPOLIS – Colleagues praised him for “thinking outside the box,” for bringing a serious traffic issue to public attention, even for crafting his first piece of original legislation.
What freshman Delegate Tony McConkey, R-Anne Arundel, didn’t receive was what he needed most: unwavering support for a bill to alleviate summertime traffic backups along Route 50.
Lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on McConkey’s effort to suspend tolls over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge when traffic extends more than 5 miles from the toll plaza and is moving at less than 30 miles per hour.
The measure addresses what McConkey labeled a “quality of life” issue impacting Anne Arundel County residents trapped by weekend tourists traveling from the state’s metropolitan regions toward shore resorts.
“I’m not a traffic engineer,” McConkey told the House Ways and Means Committee. “I don’t pretend to know what the solution is. All I’m saying is there has to be a limit on the burden we have to bare.”
But reaction was lukewarm at best, as committee members offered their ideas, and state transportation officials downplayed possible effectiveness.
Thomas L. Osborne, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said restrictions would limit ideas being studied by the MdTA, like widening approach lanes, encouraging E-ZPass use and offering off-peak discounts.
“We support Delegate McConkey’s efforts and interests in addressing congestion at the Bay Bridge,” he said. “We need, however, to carefully examine the utility and cost of all alternatives. We need flexibility.”
Osborne also said the idea would cost money: $2.3 million per year at the bridge if tolls are suspended because of traffic.
Plus, he said, tolls aren’t the problem.
The Bay Bridge can handle 1,700 fewer cars per hour than highway lanes feeding into the toll plaza, even though both have three lanes at that point. Factors that slow traffic on the bridge include uphill grades, a curving road and no highway shoulder.
“If you removed the toll plaza completely, you would still have this type of congestion and capacity issue,” said authority spokeswoman Lori Vidil.
Bay Bridge tolltakers collected $30.3 million in fiscal year 2001, according to the authority’s most recent annual report. The one-way, eastbound toll costs $2.50 for a two-axle vehicle and, with each additional axle costing $2.50.
More than 11.9 million vehicles crossed the eastbound span in 2001, Vidil said.
Tolls help support maintenance and debt payment for the bridge.
Committee members doubted the bill’s effectiveness. Some suggested an expiration date should be added to the bill, making it a test-run of sorts.
Others said the measure goes too far, regardless.
“I don’t think this is the right bill because it’s too strong, and because of the financial situation we’re in,” said Delegate Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, referring to the state’s $1.7 billion budget deficit.
And at least one civic leader said she has similar reservations.
The real problem isn’t the Bay Bridge, said Nancy Wright, president of the Broadneck Federation, a group of 25 community associations.
“I’m not sure you’re not trading one problem for another if you say, `We’re not going to collect money,'” she said, speaking for herself and not the federation. “You still have the problem of not enough through lanes on Route 50. And when you’re not collecting money, you’re losing revenue.”