200 feet above the Chesapeake Bay, the future of the bridge is clear

Published 11/14/2023 9:36 a.m. EST, Updated 11/14/2023 12:59 p.m. EST

The Bay Bridge Run on Sunday started with temperatures in the low 40s, with a brisk breeze atop the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that made it feel colder. It was still a sold-out crowd of participants.

I love the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

I know that is a controversial statement for legions of people who commute over it every day or spend hours crossing it for vacations or are trapped in their neighborhoods by the miles-long anaconda of slowly moving cars. I know some people fear driving across it.

But I love the bridge.

No other engineering marvel shapes Maryland like the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge. It unites the state’s two halves, carrying Route 50 over the bay to Ocean City for the past 71 years. It frames the bay central to our identity, whether you live within sight of it or in the far reaches of Maryland.

So, given the chance on Sunday, I joined 18,000 others to walk and run across the 4.3-mile eastbound span in the Bay Bridge Run. I went with my son and his fiancée, shivering in the early cold while the sun climbed a mackerel sky. I took pictures, admired the waterbirds roosting beneath the westbound span, and watched six ships floating at anchor just to the south.

I thought about the future of the bridge.

“We’ve started looking at alternatives,” said Heather Lowe of the Maryland Transportation Authority. “Does a new bridge make sense? How about the old bridges, what shape are they in? Does it make sense to keep both [spans] or maybe demolish and replace one or both? What about a tunnel? What about no-build? What about ferries and other transit options?”

Lowe was out there, too, on Sunday. Back on solid ground, she is the MDTA project manager for a long, long look into the future of the bridge.

She is in the middle of the National Environmental Policy Act Tier 2 Bay Crossing study. It will examine what should be done about the bridge and what consequences would come from those choices. Most people following this assume that when it is completed sometime around 2026, the recommendation will be to replace the older span.

Lowe has heard the same thing at a series of meetings this fall. The top question from people whose lives are jammed up with all the traffic was: When will the replacement be built?

Participants in the Bay Crossing Study public forums at Broadneck High School in September point out features on a map to help the state figure out what to do about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Because there is a lot of traffic. Numbers used in the first phase of the study put the volume at 27 million vehicles a year and between 68,800 and 118,800 a day, depending on the season. The state projects those numbers will grow by 22% over the next two decades.

Lowe and her agency are sifting through the comments, coordinating with other parts of government and studying alignments and alternatives. By next September, some options may have been eliminated and the future should be a little clearer.

“We will have some more information about what we think makes sense to move into a more detailed evaluation and what we think just doesn’t,” Lowe said.

I can’t help but wonder about the massive undertaking involved in the first bridge. The idea floated around for decades, but no one until Lane could muster the political will. It was right after World War II and Americans believed they could do anything.

I’m not sure we do anymore.

High-speed rail, harnessing the wind and nuclear power, new power grids and a trip to Mars are today’s big ideas. For Maryland, a new Bay Bridge might be almost as bold.

Is anyone excited by these visions?

“We do have the capacity,” said Bilal M. Ayyub, director of the Center for Technology and Systems Management at the University of Maryland, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We have the process. But sometimes the decision-making process is a little bit slow.”

Ayyub said big projects involve a range of factors, from defense and homeland security to economics and environment to politics.

“There’s all types of factors that will make it slow. But in terms of the ability and funds we can do it,” he said.

Politics got us to this point. Former Gov. Larry Hogan nudged the site selection process for a new crossing between Sandy Point and Kent Island. Tier 1 was supposed to take a few more years to evaluate different locations, but he decided to focus on the existing location.

Opponents say the corridor already suffers from congestion and sprawl and it’s someone else’s turn. Others, like Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, have bowed to the idea that the only way out of the current mess is to build another crossing as soon as possible.

“There are certainly competing interests, local politics and economic implications in terms of land use and development,” Ayyub said. “And you have the private sector and investors and what’s good in terms of the local economics and so on.”

My grandfather crossed the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge the first year it opened, 1953. He snapped this photo from a camera set up in the passenger seat.

Gov. Wes Moore hasn’t said how he views all this and didn’t offer an opinion when I asked. But he appointed state Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, and there’s been no change of direction from him.

Regardless of what the MDTA study eventually recommends, it will be a long time before the bridge is reimagined, rebuilt or replaced.

Ayyub pointed to New York, where the state announced in 1999 that it was considering replacing the seven-lane Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River. It took a decade to settle on a plan.

Construction didn’t start until 2014 and took another three years to complete. The Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge cost $3.98 billion, making it one of the largest transportation projects in U.S. history. The bridge added just one additional traffic lane but includes dedicated space for pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles. It carries a regional bus service and could hold future commuter or light rail between the two spans.

A replacement Bay Bridge would be more than a mile longer and 50 feet higher to accommodate the big oceangoing freighters that pass beneath it. Initial estimates put the cost at $5.4 billion to $13.1 billion, depending on the design.

Until it decides what to do, Maryland is trying to make life a bit easier for people who live nearby on either shore.

The State Highway Administration ran a pilot program last summer limiting access roads to local traffic, eliminating what many drivers used as a “shortcut” around stalled Route 50.

“We’ve heard favorable reviews. People liked it,” said Teri Soos, deputy state highway administrator. “We did hear some feedback from the employees at Northrop Grumman [near Sandy Point] who had a longer commute because of it. So part of our analysis will look back at the times of the day that we’re implementing, and the number of days that we’re implementing, which will help feed our decisions for our next summer.”

It’s worth remembering that Maryland was transformed by the flood of people who started crossing the bay in 1953.

Ocean City changed from a speck on the Atlantic horizon to a 10-mile stretch of condos, hotels and resort homes which fills each summer with 300,000 people. Bay resorts on the Western Shore were redeveloped into thousands of suburban homes. With no bridge, there might not have been a Cambridge Civil Rights uprising 60 years ago, and no national seashores, parks or preserves.

The state projects another 100,000 people living across the bay by 2045. If we build a big brother to the Cuomo bridge, will that figure triple as farms give way to real estate development?

The Bay Bridge Run might be a 10K, with serious competitors completing the crossing in under an hour, but for most of the 18,000 participants, it was a walk across Maryland's most defining engineering feat.

I saw lots of things atop the Bay Bridge on Sunday.

There was a man with a fish sewn to the top of his hat. Two women running in rainbow tutus. A couple pushing an empty wheelchair. Another carried young children.

From the top of Maryland’s defining engineering feat, the future of the bridge was clear.

No matter what the state decides to do, the bridge, as always, will be filled with people moving forward.

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