ANNAPOLIS – As motorists brace for what is expected to be one of the year’s worst weekends for traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, state and local transportation planners continue to search for long term solutions to the worsening traffic conditions.
So far, there is little hope for a quick fix for the frequent traffic jams that afflict the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge on warm weather weekends, or for the legendary backups on approaches to the bridge, which can sometimes stretch more than 10 miles on eastbound route 50.
Several solutions, ranging from the construction of another bridge, to building a tunnel beneath the bay or resuming long-abandoned ferry service, have been proposed and debated, but these options are vastly expensive or regarded as impractical.
“It looks bad, and it looks like it’s going to get worse,” said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R- Somerset, co-chair of the Bay Crossing Task Force, which was appointed in January 2005 to assess the capacity of the Bay Bridge and make recommendations on how to cope with the increased congestion expected over the next 30 years.
While there are no hard estimates of how much a new bridge might cost, some estimates place the figure at $600 to $900 million per mile. The current bridge is 4.3 miles long.
About 65,000 vehicles cross the Bay Bridge on the average weekday. That number is projected to increase by 2025 to 86,000. The average backup on a normal summer weekend is two to four miles on eastbound Route 50, though on several occasions this summer it has been far more, stretching back to the intersection with Interstate 97 and beyond.
Starting Friday afternoon, though, traffic is expected to be much heavier. More than a quarter million vehicles are expected to cross the bridge in both directions through Sunday, said Teri Moss, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.
From Thursday to Sunday, crowds of people will be heading to Sunfest 2005 in Ocean City or to the NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway in Delaware.
In order to combat the congestion, bridge officials will open three lanes to eastbound traffic instead of the normal two. The are two spans to the bridge, with a total of five lanes.
Before the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952, the primary means of getting a car across the bay was by ferry, which took about two hours. The Sandy Point-Matapeake Ferry was operated by the state until the bridge opened.
Annual traffic on the Bay Bridge when it first opened was 1.1 million vehicles, but by 2004 that total had soared to 25.8 million vehicles, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.
And with more people traveling to Ocean City year round, and with more people moving to the Eastern Shore and commuting to work on the Western Shore, those numbers are on the rise.
About 27,000 new homes are expected to be built there during the next 30 years, said Jim Noonan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning.
James E. Rzepkowski, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said those new homes will mean more people driving every day from the Eastern Shore to jobs on the Western Shore.
“If you want a certain job at a certain pay scale you’ve got to travel across the Bay Bridge to get that job at that particular wage youÕre looking for,” he said.
Centreville resident David Wiley has been commuting across the Bay Bridge to work at Anne Arundel Community College for the past 28 years.
The 30-mile trip usually takes about 45 minutes, he said, but going home late on a Friday can mean sitting in traffic for up to two hours.
“It’s a worry,” he said, “but you have to just take it one day at a time.”
Rzepkowski said the state hopes to attract jobs to the Eastern Shore, which will limit the number of commuters who use the bridge and help to alleviate traffic delays in the future, he said.
The authority is also working to expand E-ZPass lanes on the Bay Bridge to allow more E-ZPass users to cross without having to wait in line at toll plazas, she said.
Chestertown resident Mary Connolley commuted to her state job in Annapolis for 11 years. She said she bought an EZ-Pass four years ago to help shorten her daily commute.
She left each morning at 6:30 to make the 45-mile drive, which took an hour and a half each way, and if there was an accident or a backup, the trip would take significantly longer, she said.
“I didn’t have a computer and I didn’t listen to the traffic report in the morning,” she said. “If there was a problem on the bridge, what could I do?” She now works in Easton, she said. The largest volume on the Bay Bridge typically occurs on Fridays between 3 and 7 p.m., Moss said, when each hour more than 4,000 vehicles travel east and more than 3,000 travel west.