STEVENSVILLE — While many eastbound commuters reported delays getting home shortened by an hour, even two, Thursday and Friday afternoons, Oct. 3 and 4, compared to last Friday, local Kent Island traffic and westbound commuters experienced even longer delays this week.
The biggest eastbound glitch reported Friday was when a Maryland Transit Administration commuter bus from Baltimore stranded Eastern Shore passengers on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, refusing to travel back to Kent Island.
“MTA 210 Commuter bus leaving Baltimore to Stevensville not taking commuters over the bridge since bus can’t return! Commuters either get stuck in Baltimore or Annapolis with no transportation home!” Kathy Simpson posted on the Kent Island Happenings Facebook page.
Sally Yanulis Bell asked what commuters on Bus 210 were supposed to do. Chris Peranio traveled as far as Annapolis Mall before being stranded. Several Kent Island residents on the Facebook page offered rides to help commuters get back to the Stevensville park and ride.
“With the start of the Bay Bridge work, traffic patterns and travel restrictions continue to fluctuate daily. Commuter Bus operators are adjusting to the new bridge travel procedures. We believe the incident tonight was an isolated occurrence and we apologize that the passenger’s trip was not completed as expected,” said Veronica Battisti, senior director of communications and marketing for the MTA, in an email to the Bay Times Friday afternoon.
Battisti said MTA drivers have been told " that all routes are to be completed as scheduled and under no circumstance is it acceptable to strand a passenger.”
After last Friday’s nightmare commute when backups extended beyond the I-97 exit in Annapolis, the Maryland Transportation Authority announced changes Tuesday, Oct. 1, intended to reduce traffic backups during the $27 million, two-year Bay Bridge rehabilitation project — allowing two-way traffic on the westbound span and instituting cashless tolls Thursday and Friday afternoons and evenings.
Sept. 27’s backup was exacerbated by at least seven different instances outside of normal traffic — two crashes, two debris removals and several disabled vehicles, said MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
Two-way operations had been suspended on the Bay Bridge since Sept. 24, and the right lane of the westbound span closed completely Sept. 30. The full right-lane closure is supposed to continue through April 2020, except for the Thanksgiving holiday.
The original plan called for no two-way traffic on the westbound span for the duration of the project because the two remaining travel lanes have been reduced to 11 feet and engineers said it was too dangerous.
After last Friday, Maryland Department of Transportation announced a plan to completely stop westbound traffic and use all four lanes to clear eastbound backups when they reached that distance, the I-97 exit, in the future — outraging many Eastern Shore residents.
“I was the one that said no,” Ports said, adding he knew no lanes traveling west would mean long backups on the Shore and gridlock in neighborhoods. He went back to the engineers and asked again about two-way traffic.
“We do contra-flow in the Harbor Tunnel, which has 11-feet lanes,” he said.
The engineers still weren’t convinced, saying it was too dangerous at highway speeds.
With his background at the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, Ports said, “I’m a big safety guy.” He didn’t want to do anything dangerous, but he thought it could work.
Ports said he asked what if they do it at a reduced speed limit, 25 to 35 mph, and they could have MDTA Police travel the span and help slow vehicles down during two-way operations. They agreed, with large commercial trucks prohibited from traveling west during contra-flow traffic and no contra-flow during wind warnings.
“We believe that’s a better solution then holding up traffic on one side,” Ports said.
They announced two-way traffic would be implemented allowing three lanes traveling east and one going west during “severe backups” on the western shore, but no one defined what constituted a “severe backup.”
Drivers can help by staying alert, keeping speed down and maintaining a safe distance, MDTA said.
“It’s imperative that people understand they need to pay attention and drive only,” Ports said, not be on their phones or distracted looking at the construction or watching traffic on the Bay.
When you have a construction project, and you’ve lost 20% of your total lanes, 33% of the eastbound lanes, and you have the same amount of traffic, it’s going to be disruptive, Ports said. “We’re doing the best we can to minimize the impact.”
He said prior to the project commencing, they had tried to scare travelers who don’t have to use the Bay Bridge to get to and from work to stay away, warning of major delays and announcing they should expect 3-mile backups every day during rush hour.
He said the tactic had worked well for the Harbor Tunnel project in Baltimore, but where there were other options on the Harbor — Key Bridge, 695 — that don’t exist for the Bay Bridge.
With cashless tolling at the Bay Bridge from noon to 10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, cash drivers move through the toll plaza without stopping.
Those drivers will get the same $4 rate they would have paid and will receive a statement in the mail, Ports said. Drivers are encouraged to get a free E-ZPass transponder at ezpassmd.com to simplify toll payments.
During cashless tolling, MDTA will narrow 11 lanes at the toll plaza down to six. Toll lanes 1 and 2 will remain coned after the toll plaza to allow for quick conversion to two-way operations. During normal cashless toll operations, toll lanes 1 and 2 will merge into the left lane of the eastbound bridge and toll lanes 3 through 6 will merge into the right lane of the eastbound bridge.
During cashless toll periods, toll operators will continue to provide a customer service role, helping wave drivers through tolls and answer any questions customers may have, MDTA said.
Both strategies were implemented Thursday afternoon. The decision was made by Bay Bridge operations; they saw a 4-mile backup, and they were tracking other roads — I-97, Route 2, St. Margaret’s — trying to anticipate what was coming, Ports said.
“We’re humans trying to make decisions on the best information we have,” Ports said.
While having three lanes coming east helped ease the backup on the the western shore, it created chaos on Kent Island. Tractor-trailers, buses, campers, cars pulling boat trailers, box trucks and more were prevented from traveling west and soon lined U.S. Route 50 and state Routes 8 and 18.
MDTA reported the westbound backup extended just a mile on U.S. Route 50, but traffic also backed up on Routes 8 and 18, with parents reporting they couldn’t get from one side of the island to the other to pick children up from day care on time or to get them to soccer games.
Two-way operations ended at 6:44 p.m. Thursday, and trucks were allowed to cross west starting at 7:07 p.m.
“Our operations people are trying to do the best jobs they can. Not everybody can anticipate everything that can occur. It’s difficult to know when to pull those triggers,” Ports said.
Friday afternoon, two-way operations on the westbound span started shortly after 3 p.m., and the resulting westbound backup was even worse than Thursday, with traffic stretched all the way across Kent Island, over the R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. Bridge at Kent Narrows, and all the way to the Routes 50/301 split in Queenstown at one point.
Trucks lined both sides of Route 8 and stretched even farther south than Thursday.
“This is the reason school buses can’t get home on time, parents can’t get home to their kids, can’t go to the grocery store. What happens if someone has a heart attack? ... this is insane,” said Andrea Hall. “... how can this be allowed two days in a row?”
Her commute from Easton to Bay City took her 95 minutes Friday.
Jane Molnar’s normal 10-minute trip home from CVS took an hour.
Kent Island residents on U.S. Route 50 fared no better. Sue Spang Moynihan said she picked her son up from sailing practice at the Narrows and Google Maps told her it would take two hours to get back to Bay City, on the other side of Kent Island.
Mindy Reeves reported it took her three and a half hours to get from the hospital in Easton to Route 8 on Kent Island. By the time she reached Route 8, it had cleared.
Mother Nature may have shortened the wait for westbound travelers Friday evening. Wind warnings went into effect at the Bay Bridge and two-way operations were suspended at 6 p.m.
Melhem said all delays were cleared in both directions by 8 p.m.
Despite Friday’s snafu, Battisti advocated MTA buses as an effective travel option for commuters. She said MTA offers 12 trips from Kent Island to Baltimore and 23 trips to Washington, D.C., with plenty of available seats.
She said, “MDOT MTA will continue to work with the providers to ensure MdTA travel restrictions on the Bay Bridge are clearly communicated.”
The westbound span will close between 9 and 11 p.m. nightly and reopen at 5 a.m.
During the closure, two-way traffic will operate on the eastbound span, limiting eastbound and westbound travel to one lane in each direction. Expect major delays in both directions, MDTA said.
While cashless tolling is reserved only for Thursdays and Fridays, two-way traffic may be implemented any day Bay Bridge operations determine it is needed.