ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot called for a 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.”
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 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.
He 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.”
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 (Monday night).”
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. The commissioners are meeting with MDTA and SHA officials Tuesday to discuss traffic issues and talk about the possibility of shortening the timeline for the project.
“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 percent less of the total bridge lanes and 33 percent less of the eastbound lanes without contraflow (two-way operations),” he said.