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Franchot calls for halt to bridge project

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Franchot calls for halt to bridge project

Westbound traffic is gridlocked on state Route 18 (Main Street) in Chester Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6 due to the ongoing maintenance project on the Bay Bridge.

ANNAPOLIS — While many eastbound commuters reported that delays getting home shortened by an hour, even two, Thursday and Friday afternoons, Oct. 3 and 4, compared to the previous Friday, local Kent Island traffic and westbound motorists experienced even longer delays this week, leading state Comptroller Peter Franchot to call for a halt to the Bay Bridge project causing the traffic woes.

Franchot called for the halt to the $27 million Bay Bridge lane rehabilitation project Monday, Oct. 7, after another morning of traffic gridlock on Kent Island and a rolling westbound backup that extended from Grasonville to the Bay Bridge. Some buses were reported as much as two hours late to Kent Island High School.

“It is a debacle,” Franchot said in a phone interview Monday evening. “You have got to stop this thing and go back and do what you should have done in the beginning.”

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.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary and Maryland Transportation Authority Chairman Pete K. Rahn, Franchot criticized the lack of communication and planning that went into the Bay Bridge project.

“While I recognize the importance of public infrastructure maintenance, it is now obvious that there has not been suitable foresight given, or sufficient steps taken, to mitigate the burden and safety risks associated with this massive project. As a result, travelers on both sides of the Bay Bridge have been subjected to severe, if not unprecedented traffic backups — as long as 14 miles eastbound, and backed up to the U.S. 50/301 split westbound,” Franchot wrote.

He said the bridge is “indispensable to the safety, well-being and economy of communities throughout the Eastern Shore” and the rest of the state and the backups pose a risk. He talked about commuters being late to work and late to home, students missing instructional time, and the risk of first responders being unable to reach victims and unable to get them to the hospital.

“According to the Department’s own admission, adequate planning and preparation were not done in advance of this project. This has resulted in makeshift decision, made literally on the spur-of-the-moment, in a futile attempt to get on top of the situation,” Franchot wrote.

He called it “a real ball dropped” and said somebody’s got to do something.

Traffic Strategies

After a nightmare backup on Friday, Sept. 27, the Maryland Department of Transportation announced a plan to completely stop westbound traffic and use all four lanes to clear eastbound backups when they reached the I-97 exit, as was the case that day, in the future. The decision outraged many Eastern Shore residents.

“I was the one that said no,” MDTA Executive Director Jim 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 about a reduced speed limit, 25 to 35 mph, withe MDTA Police traveling the span and helping 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.”

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 — those don’t exist for the Bay Bridge.

With cashless tolling at the Bay Bridge from noon until 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.

Issues Continue

The traffic management strategies were implemented Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3. 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. Oct. 3, 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, Oct. 4 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. “(H)ow 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.

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.

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.

“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.”

Officials Sound Off

Franchot urged Rahn to engage community stakeholders and come up with a comprehensive plan that outlines traffic mitigation strategies.

He blamed lack of oversight for the problems.

“This contract was not looked at by the Board of Public Works,” Franchot said. MDTA contracts are approved within the agency and do not come before the BPW, which includes Franchot, Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp. “If this had come before the BPW … there is no way we would have let it move forward.”

Essentially, you’re talking about a paving project, and everyone knows paving projects are inconvenient, he said, “but inconvenient doesn’t apply to the Bay Bridge. It needs to stay open. It’s important to the economy and the safety and security of our residents.”

Franchot said the current situation is “completely and totally unacceptable. I think they can do better … at least make an effort.”

Franchot previously announced the Beat the Bay Bridge Blues Policy, a voluntary program for comptroller’s office employees, effective Oct. 7, offering Eastern Shore residents who work in Annapolis or Baltimore several options to travel more efficiently to and from their jobs.

If applicable, employees can work five days a week, with staggered start times. This will allow some employees to start earlier or later in the workday, thereby avoiding most of the major rush hour delays in crossing the Bay Bridge.

They can work four 10-hour days Monday through Thursday, with Friday off each week. The goal of this option is to reduce the number of vehicles on the Bay Bridge during the Friday commute.

When available and appropriate, employers can allow some employees to work remotely at the agency’s Call Center or branch office in Salisbury. Employees who carpool with at least four agency colleagues per vehicle for 10 days will be awarded four hours of administrative leave.

Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Jim Moran agreed with Franchot about the lack of communication on the project. He said he and his fellow commissioners were outright lied to by former MDTA Executive Director Kevin C. Reigrut, who told them there were no big projects in the works for the Bay Bridge.

As for shutting the project down at this point, “I think we might have missed that window of opportunity,” Moran said.

A commuter himself, Moran said he’s been watching the project’s progress as he travels the bridge.

“They’ve already milled the road from the beginning of the westbound bridge up to the first trestle,” he said. “And it looks like they’re going to be hydro-blasting.”

That section would need to be completed before the right lane could be reopened, he said, and by then the weather will be cooler and most of the big weekend events will be done, so there shouldn’t be as much traffic.

Moran said he thinks part of the local gridlock problem could have been avoided had the state approved the county’s Beach to Bridge plan, which would have reduced or eliminated tourist traffic from routes 8 and 18.

He said he definitely doesn’t want to see the project delayed until spring and run into summer beach traffic.

“Why aren’t there four separate crews working at the same time (on the project),” Moran wanted to know.

MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports responded to Franchot’s letter in an email Monday evening.

“The safety of Marylanders is our top priority, which is exactly why we are taking action on this urgent safety project. To delay this work from fall and winter, as the Comptroller suggests, would shift into spring and summer when traffic is at its peak, only magnifying the disruption that residents are experiencing now,” Ports wrote. “Most drivers recognize that any highway or bridge project causes traffic delays and disruptions.”

Because there are no easy options or detours for the Bay Bridge, Ports said his agency is working with school systems, school bus contractors, employers on both side sides of the Bay and public safety officials on traffic concerns.

“Regardless of timing, construction of this critical safety project will unavoidably require moving the same amount of traffic with 20% less of the total bridge lanes and 33% less of the eastbound lanes without contraflow (two-way operations),” he said.

Additional reporting by Greg Maki and Kristian Jaime.

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