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Bay Bridge Back-Ups: The View From The East

bay bridge.jpg
Joel McCord
Urging travelers to stay on US 50

With summer almost here and COVID restrictions relaxing across Maryland, vacationers soon will be headed for ocean retreats, creating the inevitable Bay Bridge back-ups on the Western Shore as well as angst for businesses and public safety officials on the Eastern Shore during the crowded return trip.

Late on a Sunday afternoon in late May or early June, residents say the westbound traffic on US 50 can back up as far as the Queenstown outlets, almost 12 miles from the bay, and spill over onto the narrow local roads.

James Cronin, who runs D’Alesio’s Wood Fired Pizza in Stevensville, says that’s a dagger in the heart of local businesses.

“We can't deliver. The locals don't come out because they're used to the traffic and the only business we will get will be people that are frustrated in traffic,” he said.

Worse, and more frightening, it slows emergency responders trying to navigate through the traffic on Route 18, Kent Island’s main street, says Scot Haas, director of emergency services for Queen Anne’s County.

“During peak times, we get a total bottleneck on Kent Island, all the way through Grasonville and it's very difficult to get emergency vehicles through that area,” he said. “When we have somebody in critical condition, it can be very scary.”

He says that can delay emergency vehicles by as much as 45 minutes.

Add to that, Kent Island has a volunteer fire department. Tracy Schulz, first assistant chief, says that means when a call comes in, volunteers have to get from home or work to the firehouse before heading out.

“So, when the traffic's backed up on the island, it's a big problem for our members to get from their house to the firehouse,” he said. “They’re in their personal vehicles, and they don't have lights and sirens and stuff to move people.”

That also creates manpower problems for Queen Anne’s County Sheriff Gary Hoffman, who has to pull deputies off other duties to deal with the traffic.

“You end up then with a complete gridlock, to where it's almost impossible to move around because all of the side roads and the arteries feeding into Route 50 are now blocked or are heavily congested,” he said.

If worse comes to worse, he says, they could shut down the exits from US 50 onto Route 18, but there’s the time crunch.

“ It would take us probably about 20 to 25 minutes to clear Route 18 completely off, which would be a 20 minute delay for a catastrophic event for first responders.”

The search for a solution has taken some time.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced in 2016 a preliminary study for a third Chesapeake Bay crossing. Five years and $5 million later, a preliminary Maryland Transportation Authority study found the best solution would be a third crossing on the existing US 50-301 corridor.

The authority looked at 14 potential corridors, from the top of the bay to just north of the Virginia line and found that Route 50-301 would be the only one that wouldn’t require substantial new road building, wouldn’t hurt environmentally sensitive areas, wouldn’t lead to significant land use changes on the Eastern Shore and would be more effective in reducing back-ups.

Not surprisingly, that created some controversy.

James Cronin, of the Stevensville pizza parlor, says that would require widening Route 50. And he doesn’t see that happening. The third crossing should be somewhere to the south, he says, south of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge.

“The animals won’t mind,” he said. “They’ll be fine.”

Jim Moran, a Queen Anne’s County Commissioner, says his constituents argue they don’t want a third crossing in that corridor. But he says they already have the traffic. They need the roads to handle it.

“So, to me, it's a replacement bridge that can handle the capacity,” he said.

The state already owns the right of way and everything else they need for a new bridge, either six or eight lanes, he said.

Like Commissioner Moran, Tracy Schulz, the volunteer firefighter, argues the crossing should be a replacement for the aging bridges, which opened in 1952 and 1973 respectively. He says it should be at least three lanes in each direction to eliminate the need for two-way traffic on the westbound span during peak hours.

He’s seen the problems that can cause.

“We've had to get out of the fire truck, walk ahead of the fire truck and move cars, guide people over to make room for the fire trucks to be able to get out to the accident or incident that’s on the bridge,” he said.

But before anything else happens, the state will have to do a far more detailed study, and there is no money for that in the budget.

Meanwhile, the businesses along the way will fight to survive and emergency personnel will continue to urge homebound vacationers to stay on US 50 because believe it or not, it really is quicker than the back roads.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.