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Washington Post: Maryland transportation chief apologizes for hours-long backups at Bay Bridge

Maryland’s transportation chief apologized Wednesday for unusually severe weekend traffic backups at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, saying the state is working to reduce congestion during a two-year maintenance project on the westbound span.

Eastbound traffic, including beachgoers and commuters, backed up about 14 miles Friday, resulting in 10 hours of delays and spillover traffic swamping much of Anne Arundel County, according to media reports. In an unusual move, state officials waived tolls for several hours Friday night, until backups began to clear about 11 p.m.

Exasperated motorists tweeted about spending two hours to travel 10 miles and a typical 20-minute commute spanning 2½ hours. An online petition asking the state to “find a better solution” had gathered more than 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

Problems began after the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, suspended two-way traffic on the westbound span Sept. 24. State officials said eastbound traffic could no longer use a lane of the wider westbound span in the evenings because two-way traffic would be unsafe while the westbound lanes are narrowed to rebuild part of the bridge deck.

Under grilling from the state’s Board of Public Works on Wednesday, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said he understood that Friday was a “miserable day” for motorists. He said the state had publicized the expected backups “all summer long,” but unseasonably warm weather drew more beach traffic than expected for a fall weekend and more than one “incident” made things worse.

“I admit that clearly what happened was not anticipated, and we did not have a response already in an advance plan for it,” Rahn told the board during its regular meeting in Annapolis. “I apologize to the public for what they experienced last Friday. We’re doing everything we can to address this going forward.”

Rahn said the state is focusing on keeping traffic moving, even if it backs up. Following the Friday problems, he said, the authority decided to open the westbound span for two-way traffic when eastbound backups are “especially bad.” Because of the narrower lanes, he said, speed limits will be reduced to between 25 and 35 mph, and commercial trucks won’t be permitted during two-way traffic.

Maryland officials had previously announced following the Friday backups that there will be “cashless tolling” at the bridge from noon to 10 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays throughout the repair project. Motorists without an E-ZPass transponder won’t have to stop at a toll booth. Instead, they will receive a bill for the $4 toll in the mail but will not have to pay the additional video tolling fee.

Rahn said the state also is working with the contractor to try to complete the project in one year, rather than two.

But with the $27 million project long scheduled, some state leaders said the authority should have done more to prevent the problem.

Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), one of the three members of the Board of Public Works, said he had heard “a lot of anger and frustration” from motorists.

Franchot said the state hadn’t done enough ahead of time to prevent the “horrible traffic mess,” such as by meeting with major employers to try to encourage teleworking, ride sharing and other efforts to reduce bridge traffic.

“I hope you’re going to get it right having not gotten it right so far with advanced planning,” Franchot told Rahn. “ … Somebody dropped the ball.”

Franchot later announced that he would encourage his 80 employees who commute from the Eastern Shore to adjust their work hours, work from home and carpool when possible.

Erin Cox contributed to this report.

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