For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.
With a nightmarish crash under investigation and summer beach traffic backing up for miles, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is undergoing new scrutiny. Even before a car plunged from the deck into the bay in July, the Maryland Transportation Authority agreed to assess the bridge’s life expectancy — a small step in the decades-old debate over whether to add a third span. Kojo explores how the competing interests of farmers, commuters, vacationers, environmentalists and politicians will factor into the bridge’s future.
- Bruce Gartner Acting Executive Secretary, Maryland Transportation Authority
- E.J. Pipkin Maryland State Senator (R-Dist. 36)
- Candy Thomson Reporter, The Baltimore Sun
Surviving After A Car Tumbles Off The Bay Bridge
Spanning The Bay
Explore the far-reaching effects the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has had on everything from commerce to commuting. It helped fuel the growth of the tourism industry, transforming tiny beachside resorts like Ocean City into crowded summertime destinations.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's the bridge everyone loves to hate. Some people are terrified to drive across it, especially after the recent crash that sent a car plunging into the water below. Others are just aggravated by the long backups, unpredictable traffic and seemingly endless repairs. But the four-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge is indispensable, not only to beach goers and commuters, but to the agricultural and tourist economies on the eastern side of the bay.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow the bridge is getting new scrutiny. Investigators are looking into last month's crash and the Maryland Transportation Authority is studying the bridge's life expectancy. A baby step in the long simmering debate over whether to build a third span to alleviate traffic. Joining me to look at the future of the Bay Bridge in studio is Candy Thomson. She's a reporter for the Baltimore Sun who it's always a pleasure to talk to. Hi, Candy.
MS. CANDY THOMSONAlways good to see you. Thanks for the invitation, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining Candy in studio with us is Bruce Gartner. He is acting executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Bruce Gartner, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRUCE GARTNERThanks you for having me here.
NNAMDIWe'll be talking shortly with Maryland State Senator E. J. Pipkin, but Bruce, allow me to start with you. After two serious crashes on the bridge last month, we've got to start talking, I guess, about safety. On July 19 a tractor trailer struck a car, pushing it over the guard wall into the water 40' below. That driver miraculously escaping, swimming to safety. Three days later a near head-on collision injuring two people, one critically. How safe is the Bay Bridge?
GARTNERKojo, the Bay Bridge is safe. We actually talk about safety all the time at the Maryland Transportation Authority. It's not just after the past two accidents. That certainly has brought a lot of attention to the bridge. And, as you indicated, there are ongoing investigations and we're working closely, our own police investigations and with the NTSB.
NNAMDIThe National Transportation Safety Board -- and compared to what goes on on the roads in Maryland, I guess some would say that the Bay Bridge is safe. I'd like to hear what some of our listeners think about that. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. How safe do you think the Bay Bridge is, 800-433-8850? Bruce Gartner, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. What would be your agency's role in that probe and how long will it take?
GARTNERWell, basically our role is assisting them in looking at all the data we have about our structures, about the incidents themselves, the vehicles involved in the incidents and what was going on. So we have data for them. We have physical evidence for them and we share that with them. Our understanding is that investigation will take a few months before they would issue any kind of public report on that.
NNAMDIA report last November suggested safety improvements for the three-lane span when it's carrying two-way traffic. When does that happen and which of those safety improvements have you made?
GARTNERYes. Last year my predecessor and the authority staff undertook an extensive look at the two-way operations on that westbound span, the three-lane span. And they looked at a number of options to improve safety. What we ended up with we implemented in April. And that's the rumble strips and the improved striping on the lane between the -- where you go eastbound and the two lanes going westbound. So that -- those improvements have been done. And we have been abiding by those since April.
NNAMDICandy Thomson, what's the public's perception about the bridge's safety?
THOMSONWell, it is the bridge you love to hate. It is the gateway to your vacation. It is some people's daily commute route. It is -- you know, it's a pretty bridge. I mean, when the sun's coming up in the morning, that bridge is really terrific. it's a fisherman's paradise because guys fish on the pilings under the bridge because that's where the striped bass hang out. So, I mean, it's as Maryland as the Baltimore Orioles. I mean, it is -- you see that bridge and you know exactly what you're looking at.
THOMSONThat said, there are people who flat out won't cross it. There are people who cross it, god forbid, with just one eye open and their hands in, you know, at the 10 and 2 in white-knuckle, you know, terror. I know when I do the two-way travel over the newer of the two spans, for me that's a little nerve wracking because it's an unnatural way to travel with traffic coming right at you and water on the one side. But I like to live dangerously. You know that, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou wrote in the Baltimore Sun that it's considered structurally sound, but functionally obsolete.
THOMSONJust like me, Kojo. You know, as I approach 60 I am those things. It's true. I mean, the bridge -- they've spent millions upon millions of dollars, the state. You've got to give them credit. They're always doing upgrades to the bridge. They've re-decked it, they've rewrapped the suspension cables because they're subject to corrosion. You always see it's being painted, it's being sandblasted. You know, when you've got a structure that's that old -- it's 61 years old, the older of the two spans -- you know, you've got to keep up.
THOMSONAnd so I think the state does a fairly good job of keeping the bridge up, but it's an ongoing process. I mean, anyone who goes across that bridge knows they no sooner finish and get over to the one side then they're starting over again. And it's a never-ending process.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Maryland State Senator E. J. Pipkin. He's a Republican who represents Queen Anne's County on the eastern shore. Senator Pipkin, thank you for joining us.
MR. E.J. PIPKINGlad to be here.
NNAMDIThose of us here in D.C. and the nearby suburbs think of the bridge mostly as a route to the beach. But for many residents of Queen Anne's County on the eastern shore of the bay, it's part of their daily commute to work. What do your constituents think about the bridge and the congestion it creates?
PIPKINWell, about over 60 percent of Queen Anne's County gets up every day and heads out of the county to go to work. A very high percentage of those people use the Bay Bridge to reach jobs on the western shore. You know, it's time to have the debate that no one really wants to have. The idea whether we should have a third Bay Bridge span is timely. It needs to take place because, you know, the idea that we're going to manage over 25 million vehicles a year across the five lanes that are available to both bridges, you know, as each year traffic grows is sheer lunacy.
PIPKINMy hope is is that we put the process in place, the National Policy Act lets us move forward with a study that brings people who want a third span, where it might be, as well as those that don't want a span to the table. And that's what I've asked the governor to do.
NNAMDIWe ask our listeners to join that conversation. Do you think Maryland should add a third span to the Bay Bridge? If so, where should it be? Call us at 800-433-8850. Are you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org and make your observation or ask a question there. You can also send email to email@example.com. Senator Pipkin, what role does the Bay Bridge play in the agricultural and tourist economy of the eastern shore?
PIPKINOh, it's absolutely critical. I mean, you know, Ocean City could not be the tourist destination, the vacation destination that it is today. And let's realize that the people that use that bridge, a very high percentage are from Maryland or the Maryland area. That's Maryland dollars staying in Maryland to create Maryland jobs. You know, it's an absolute vital link as far as the tourism business is concerned, all the agricultural products for the most part that are produced on the shore.
PIPKINYou know, many people say, well, we don't want to see the eastern shore developed. We want it to stay agricultural in nature. Well, that requires that they be able to get those products to market. The Bay Bridge is the link to that. So, you know, it is a vital economic engine for the state of Maryland. And, you know, the idea that, you know, the day's coming and it may happen this summer because we've had some pretty tough backups already that -- we'll have a backup spanning from the Bay Bridge down Route 50, across 495 and into downtown Washington at the rate we're going.
PIPKINAnd yet, you know, when it comes to policymakers moving things forward, they like to stick their head in the sand. We need to move forward.
NNAMDICandy, your piece in the Baltimore Sun quotes Ocean City Mayor Meehan. Talk about what he had to say.
THOMSONWell, he certainly is looking for, you know, the day when the studies stop. And there have been plenty of them. I was doing a little cleaning around the Baltimore Sun and found binders with all kinds of studies, everything from should we have another span to what if we put mass transit on the Bay Bridge, to like all kinds of little interim things. So, yes, certainly the people on the eastern shore, people like the mayor of Ocean City, you know, they want to see some resolution.
THOMSONAt the very least they want a study that's ready to go so that when the money's available and the political will -- and that's a big part of this -- when the political will is there to do it, the state of Maryland is ready to move.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the future of the Bay Bridge with Candy Thomson. She's a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Maryland State Senator E. J. Pipkin. He's a Republican who represents Queen Anne's County on the eastern shore and Bruce Gartner. He is acting executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Bruce Gartner, talk about traffic projections. How is the number of trips across the bridge expected to change in coming years?
GARTNERWell, the traffic across the Bay Bridge -- and I'll start with the past few years -- has not increased that dramatically. When some of these studies that were done, that Candy referenced, several years ago there were projections of percentage growth in the 3 and 4 percent range generally. What we've seen is much less than that since the recession. Those were done pre-2008. So we've had relatively stable volumes of traffic but we do have about 28 million vehicles across the Bay Bridge every year. So making sure we're doing that as efficiently as possible and getting the people where they need to go is obviously a priority, as is their safety.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Pete in Annapolis, Md. Pete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETEYes. Good morning, Kojo. I'm one of the thousands of people that drive the bridge on a regular basis. We live on Ken (sp?) Island. We don't -- excuse me -- neither my wife nor I commute anymore but we've been driving that bridge since 1995. And I'm a little bit concerned that there's what might be called overreaction to particularly the incident where the young lady was allegedly pushed overboard -- over the side by the truck. I was not aware of the accident that happened later so I can't comment on that.
PETEBut I think our main problem, to be perfectly honestly, are the drivers. Particularly on Fridays people are impatient to get to the beach. And to kind of leave you with this, I would really like to know what really happened that Friday when the truck apparently pushed the car over the side. There was also, I believe, a second car involved. There was nothing much talked about, that second car. There was very little, at least the press reports that I read, about the truck.
PETEAnd normally on a Friday night late like this, traffic at that merge there where everybody is coming out of the tolls down to two lanes are moving very slowly. And I question whether that truck was actually doing the speed that he was allegedly doing.
PETESo there's a lot of stuff hanging out there that -- and I'll take your response off the air. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for your call. Before we get a response, let me go to Greg in Washington because I think he may share Pete's sentiments. So we'll get responses to both. Greg, your turn.
GREGHey, good afternoon. I sort of buttress what that gentleman just said. People do not need to pass on the bridge. They do not need to speed on the bridge. I drive on the bridge quite a bit. They just need to sit back, relax and enjoy the view and don't drive like idiots. And maybe we could too -- and also I think the bridge, if you look at it on a yearly basis, is probably underutilized. The only time it gets busy really is in the spring and summer.
GREGAnd maybe in the summertime we could start implementing, say, at 4:00 in the morning your toll, instead of $6 would be, you know, $2 or something like that to try to spread it out to get people to maybe try to engineer -- a little financial engineering and get them to leave at different times.
NNAMDIOkay, Greg. Thank you very much for your call. Candy Thomson, how soon are you expecting driver behavior to change dramatically on the bridge, which both of our callers seem to think is the problem.
THOMSONWhen fish ride bicycles. You know, I mean, I understand what both gentlemen are saying. The simple fact of the matter is that, you know, I mean, there are posted speed limits and there are rules of the road. And, you know, short of having a police car between every single motorist and having some kind of a massive police escort, you know, people -- it's human behavior.
THOMSONTo talk about what the first gentleman was talking about, the other car involved in the accident was a Mazda I believe. And it was the first vehicle. So the woman whose car went over the barrier, she was hit from behind and she was pushed into the Mazda in front of her. So the Mazda in front of her was kind of the passive accident victim here. The truck driver -- the Baltimore Sun printed it because I know it because I typed it -- the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's record for that particular trucking company was actually quite good.
THOMSONYou know, they have the standard kind of problems that trucking companies have but when put up against the national standards for all different kinds of driver attentiveness, alcohol and drug problems, speeding, all those kinds of things, this Prince Edward Island trucking company actually looks pretty good.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you're thinking about calling and forgot the number it's 800-433-8850. Do you think a third bridge span would change the character of the eastern shore? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the future of the Bay Bridge. We're talking with Maryland State Senator E. J. Pipkin. He's a Republican who represents Queen Anne's County on the eastern shore. Candy Thomson is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Bruce Gartner is acting executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Bruce, maintaining the Bay Bridge takes a lot of work. As Candy said, when one project is done it seems like it's time to start the next one. Talk about the cleaning and painting that are underway now, when they'll be done and when the next phase of work will begin? How does the work affect traffic congestion?
GARTNERWell, managing all the work with the traffic going on is a constant exercise for our bridge administrator out there. At any given time there's about 15 contractors -- contracting companies doing work on the Bay Bridge. So I've seen schedules that they have at the Bay Bridge administration office where they are literally just figuring out hours and minutes of when they do pickups and when they have lane closures in the overnight hours when there isn't traffic. So we're fortunate that the previous caller talked about some underutilized time. We need that underutilized time actually to perform some of this maintenance work.
GARTNERYou referenced the painting project. It's actually a four-phase painting project that we have that's about $100 million worth of work that's going on. So you see it up on the towers, you see it on the super structure, you see it underneath. There's, you know, tenting going on. We have to contain all that material so it takes time. When windstorms come by -- when winds come through we had to take down the tarps because we were worried about the strength of the wind on that. So that slows us down a little bit. And we have to readjust our schedules.
GARTNERSo it is a constant challenge and I think we've been doing a pretty good job. But we will have to do that for years and years to come.
NNAMDISenator Pipkin, you are a longtime advocate of adding another span to the bridge. And each of the last ten general assembly sessions you and State Senator John Astle, a Democrat from Annapolis have proposed a major environmental impact study for a potential new span, but it's always failed. This year the Transportation Authority agreed to take a more limited look at the bridge's life expectancy. Explain what the study will do.
PIPKINWell, I think it's a baby step in the right direction in that it takes a look at the existing stance, their conditions. More importantly what type of measures we're going to need to take as far as maintenance to keep those spans in operation as safely and as long as possible. And, you know, I was happy to see that the NBTA offered to undertake that study. You know, in my view I think it should be part of a broader discussion that brings in, you know, the advocates that want to see a third span, talk about the location as well as those that don't want to see a span built into the environmental policy process.
PIPKINAnd because, you know, it will take years to do that study. And, you know, even if we were to agree on a location today and if we would go forward with it, it's 13 to 15 years before we could actually see another bay span. Regardless of, you know, the growth rates we are going to see increased traffic overtime on the spans and I think it's necessary. You know, it's a very human price that gets paid.
PIPKINYou know, if you live on the eastern shore in Queen Anne's County, some of the other surrounding counties and, you know, you're a two-working family and your kids are stuck in daycare on the eastern shore and you hit a backup because of volume and can't get to them, you know, who takes care of the kids? Does childcare stay open? How do you make sure your kids stay safely? You know, those are issues that people on the eastern shore face every day because their life is tied to the span.
PIPKINIf we're not going to build a third span, we need to tell those people that we're not going to build a span and that, you know, we need to bring economic activity and jobs, you know, to the eastern shore. But, you know, we face people who really just want to see the eastern shore be a museum that they can drive by on summer weekends. And that's not what it is. It's an economic engine, agriculture, other tourism, other jobs.
PIPKINAnd if we're not going to build the third span we need to bring some of that economic activity over. And we have people that would oppose that because they want nothing to change. Well, where do those people make a living?
NNAMDIBruce, what will the engineers look at to determine the bridge's life expectancy and what do you think this study will tell us?
GARTNERWell, they have to look at a variety of structures on the bridge. There's the bridge decking, there's the super structure involved. So basically have to look at the life expectancy and the work that's going to be required to maintain the cost of that. So as the senator and I have discussed and will discuss with Senator Astle as well is that you have to kind of set out the timeframe. So we do think this is the next logical step so that you can have that discussion and know when you could be really up against the wall in terms of a major piece of work or when it just doesn't make sense to be making certain investments.
GARTNERThe other thing we will do is we will update some of those traffic projections as we do this. So just have various concepts about a replacement crossing. It wouldn't be environmental studies but, you know, is it -- are we able to build a span there in close proximity? It'll bring up just some of those basic issues that will inform the debate that the senator has talked about.
NNAMDIPretty much, you say Candy, an engineering exercise taking place here.
THOMSONIt is an engineering exercise and it's bigger than just a span. You know, it's bigger than just something that goes over the water. You have to look at -- and NBTA has to look at the access roads leading up to a bridge. I mean, if you put a third span either between the two that exist or next to, you've got to widen out all the roads leading to and from that bridge. And you also would have to, I assume, widen the Seven River Bridge because that's how far back traffic, you know, goes and goes and goes.
THOMSONYou know, and you've got to look at exit ramps, entrance ramps, not only on the western shore, but the eastern shore. You're going to be taking a lot of land. When the study in, I guess it was 2005 -- the 2005 study that looked at four crossing points. The one to the north is north of Baltimore. Well, the problem there is it's a lot of land taking. There aren't a lot of good access roads. There would be a lot of road building. If you put the span, you know, where it is now you end up having to widen out another bridge just to pull this off.
THOMSONIf you go one notch further south, you end up with a bridge that's what, twice as long -- more than twice as long as the Bay Bridge. It's a better shot to Ocean City. It's a more straight shot. Again, though, you've got to build more roads to access it. And then if you go all the way down to the south you're talking about, you know, the bay just keeps widening out so the bridge just keeps getting wider.
THOMSONAnd there's a lot of sensitive federal wetlands on the eastern shore. You've got Black Water National Wildlife Refuge. You've got all these sanctuaries that you're going to have to go around or over or something. And so it's a heavy lift.
NNAMDIHey, life is complicated.
NNAMDIHere's Dan who wants to comment on the structure of the bridge. Dan you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANYeah, Kojo, I was listening to this program and what everybody's talking about. Really everybody's putting out good points. But I've been over the bridge several times, car and motorcycle and so forth. And unless there is something structurally wrong with the bridge, the bridge is adequate for the traffic at the moment and probably for the near future. But what I was wondering is, I recently was out in San Francisco and went across the Golden Gate Bridge, which has been there a lot longer than the Bay Bridge I think, or pretty much close to it.
DANAnd one of the things my brother pointed out to me out there is they have speed cameras all the way along that bridge, which forces people to obey the speed limit, because it hits them in the pocket big time if they go over it. If we can put those speed cameras on all the corners and everyplace in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, why can't they put them all the way along the bridge and start...
PIPKINIt's not the problem. At the end of the day, this idea that the drivers are the problem, you know, as the secretary said, moving 28 million people over five lanes of traffic. The issues that we've had with this bridge have more to do with traffic flow than driver error. And the idea that somehow if we only give the drivers speeding tickets, it'll fix it all -- the bridge is heavily policed. The NBTA has an extremely high presence both entering in on the western side and on the eastern side. You know, I'm not saying that speed isn't a problem in some of the accidents but, you know, speed cameras aren't the end all and be all.
PIPKINYou know, a lot of people that live there and use this bridge on a regular basis, you know, wish that speed -- you know, one day we could have a day we could talk about speed because they're not hitting the maximum speeds on the bridge because of traffic flow. You know, it's convenient to say that the drivers that use that bridge have made mistakes but they're not the cause of the problem. It's a structural issue. Twenty-eight million people, twenty-eight million visits every year over five lanes of traffic in a hostile weather environment is not the blame of drivers that use that bridge on a regular basis.
PIPKINAre there mistakes made? Can safety be improved? Absolutely. But speed cameras aren't the answer. Sticking it to the drivers isn't the answer. A political consensus needs to be built to address structural issues. And it's hard because it's expensive and it takes a long time to do.
NNAMDIWhich we'll get to the politics in a second. But Bruce Gartner, I'm pretty sure that at some point the Maryland Transportation Authority has considered at least speed cameras.
GARTNERWell, the speed camera statute in Maryland, as the Senator knows, does not allow us to do speed cameras on the span. So it's strictly work zones on our state highways, at school zones, etcetera. So that we really -- you know, that hasn't been a discussion we've had with the general assembly yet. What I would like to...
PIPKINMaybe we ought to ask the people of Baltimore city how their speed camera program's working out for them.
GARTNERI think Candy knows the answer to that but...
GARTNER...if I could go back to the accident rates that we have on the bridge...
GARTNER...and sort of talking about driver behavior. On a statewide, you know, average, we have, you know, an accident rate that's about 166 incidents per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled. That's just a common measure that we use, and apologize for some of the transportation lingo. But on the Bay Bridge the rate is about a quarter of that on that structure. So the bridge from the accident standpoint is in pretty good shape compared to a statewide average.
GARTNERBut what you have there is you have a very constrained facility, as everybody acknowledges. There's no shoulders on the road. And even if speeding isn't a problem, when you do have a situation where you're not paying attention, where maybe you're taking in the view when you should've been looking at the road ahead of you, you have a situation where you have rear ends and you can't go off to the side like you can go on regular, you know, I-97. I got too close, I need to go off to the right. Well, the right's not there. It's a barrier.
GARTNERSo we do have issues that people need to pay attention about. So I'm going to constantly talk about driver behavior on that bridge because we really do need people to be paying attention, not texting, not looking out at the view on that curve when they're going up the bridge where this accident actually took place. It is a concern for us.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What is your biggest concern about the Bay Bridge? You can also send email to email@example.com. Candy, I'll start with you and then go to Senator Pipkin. Over the years, as we've mentioned, there's been a lot of talk about weather and you just mentioned it, where to build a third span across the Chesapeake Bay. What are the politics of this debate and why is it so contentious?
THOMSONWell, it's contentious for a number of reasons. First of all, we can just start with the money. We're talking about a minimum of $3 billion to add another span. The Tappan Zee Bridge up in New York, which is also structurally sound but obsolete as far as being functional, the replacement for that bridge is $3.9 billion. And they're starting that work now. This is a long process. That's a lot of money. And while the NBTA pays for most of its projects -- all of its projects through tolls, that's a lot of money to be floating bonds for and that kind of thing.
THOMSONThe political will, you've got the people on the western shore who want to get where they want to get. You've got a lot of people on the eastern shore who don't want their communities to be changed anymore. I mean, you can look at Easton. You can look at Cambridge along Route 50. Those communities have changed. Easton has its bypass now. Cambridge, you know, it's a hamburger row there where, you know, you just go -- fast food heaven. I mean, people on Kent Island talk about the fact that when the Bay Bridge is backed up, they can't even get out of their driveways.
THOMSONBut even on Kent Island you've got people who say, well we just plan around it. It's just made May to September. We'll live with it. We just don't want any more development on the eastern shore.
NNAMDISenator Pipkin, Candy also said that the taskforce meetings in the mid 2000s to look at the possibility of another span included screaming matches and death threats against members. Your take on why the politics of this are so contentious.
PIPKINThose two bridges are some of the -- two of the most controversial work projects in Maryland's history. You go back over the last 100 years and look at them, they've been caked in controversy and what the location should be and costs. And they have defined generations of political process and argument. The discussion of a third span is no different than the previous two. But it's a question of priorities.
PIPKINNow the governor's put on his priority list that he wants to move forward with a red line and a purple line and a transit way, all D.C. related projects, you know, except for the Baltimore red line. Those total $6 billion in commitments. Meanwhile, every Friday in the summer we've got, you know, anywhere from six to ten to eighteen to twenty-two miles of backups on the bridge. People need to talk about the fact that there's an environmental cost to that. What is the cost of having people sitting in traffic, having roads clogged, having people's lives destroyed because they can't go pick up their kids?
PIPKINThe assumption in a lot of the discussion is that the status quo has zero cost, zero implication. And the fact of the matter is, if you've been in this nightmare on any given weekend when this happens, it has a significant financial cost, it has a significant lifestyle cost. And so, you know, those discussions -- you know, we need to be able to have those discussions but the difference is -- and I agree in one respect -- it's time really to have discussions but then to take action on those discussions one way or another. If it's no bill, let's say no bill. If it's bill let's move forward.
PIPKINThe problem with the 2005 situation was a lot of heat. But when push came to shove, no decisions were made. It was a tremendous missed opportunity.
NNAMDISenator, who are the two sides that you can characterize in this heated debate? Who supports a new bridge span? Who opposes the idea?
PIPKINI think the opposition is there's a significant number of people who really want to turn the eastern shore of Maryland into a museum. That's the way I would characterize it. They don't want any economic activity. They don't want additional traffic. They don't want any jobs being brought there. They don't want any impervious service being brought there. They've been successful at passing land use bills at the state level that can track the ability for things like septics and storm water and other things being developed there.
PIPKINThey have been in the process of (unintelligible) off economic activity. They want to turn it into a museum. And they see talk of a span as a threat to that. So that's one extreme of the occasion. And there's the other people who are generally users of the bridge, who, I believe, are some of the most sophisticated motorists in the country who understand this bridge and how it works and what -- because, believe me, I get these conversations when something does happen -- is that they're saying, you know, you can't solve this problem with just total issues related to how the existing five lanes are managed.
PIPKINThe capacity issues are such that a third span is warranted, and we need to move forward with that. And those are people that either the users or those are the businesses that have economic interest, or those are the people that have a significant interest in the tourism business in the eastern shore and in Maryland overall who want to make sure that people can -- who want to stay in Maryland to spend their dollars stay in Maryland.
PIPKINIt's a jobs question to them. So we have the jobs and the people who use the bridge on one hand, and those that have been advocating a museum approach to the eastern shore. And frankly, in the discussions under this governor, the museum people are winning.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. What would you like to see changed or improved on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing the future of the Bay Bridge with Candy Thomson. She's a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Bruce Gartner is acting executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, and Maryland State Senator E.J. Pipkin. He's a Republican who represents Queen Anne's County on the eastern shore. We are inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Now some alternative suggestions. Here now is Alan in Shady Side, Md. Alan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Alan.
ALANI just wanted to point out, I've had a place in Bethany Beach, De. for 18 years, and I've been driving the bridge probably at least twice a month for most of the year. And the thing that's been left out of this discussion, and in every discussion I've always heard, is this bridge was not intended to be a commuter route for the people on Kent Island and Queen Anne's County. And it's absolutely ridiculous if you sit in that traffic on any given Friday, over half the cars have one driver in them.
ALANAnd it's my understanding, I mean, these people are actually given a break on tolls. If they're overburdening the bridge for a purpose it wasn't intended for, then, you know, they should pay for a new bridge, and the tolls should be set up accordingly. It's just something that, you know, everybody chooses to ignore, and it's the obvious, you know, elephant in the room so to speak.
NNAMDIThat gripping sound you hear are the hands of Senator E.J. Pipkin around your neck. Senator E.J. Pipkin, will you please respond to Alan, please.
PIPKINThat's ridiculous, okay? I mean, the fact of the matter is there's a lot of history of a lot of roads that started out as local roads and then -- or weekend roads, and then people moved to that area. That's been the story of development throughout the state of Maryland and actually throughout the country. So if we're going to segment people by when they use the road and how many times they use it, et cetera, related to who should pay for the new bridge, how about the fact that the Bay Bridge -- I've looked at the numbers bought and paid for, and even all the repairs that have been done over the years, if you go back to all the tolls that have been charged over that time, we just faced a sharp increase in our tolls, and yet excess cash out from that bridge goes into the MBTA budget to help pay for the ICC.
PIPKINSo you know what? Those people that you don't like seeing there on Friday nights, they're helping pay for the other toll facilities that the MBTA operates throughout the state, the latest of which has been the ICC. So they get the ultimate irony of seeing higher toll prices. Oh, in the last year they have had to listen to commercials about trying to encourage people in the Washington suburbs to use the roads that the MBTA built and manages using their toll money. The irony runs pretty deep if you live on the eastern shore and happen to have one road relative to that.
PIPKINAnd you know what? We don't have mass transit options, you know, throughout the area like the Washington suburbs do, and the fact of the matter is that the roads are important. This bridge is the lifeline, and to be able to say that they're the ones that are causing the problem, boy, if you were to take that back to the commuter groups that I've seen, we would have a real fun discussion.
NNAMDIAlan, thank you very much for you call. But Candy, I got to say at some point, the state eventually mustered the political will after years, what seems like decades of arguments, to build the intercounty connector. What does the lack of action on a new bridge tell you?
THOMSONWell, I mean, as someone who sat through, oh, at least...
NNAMDIAll the those decades, yes.
THOMSONWell, some of the them anyway, of ICC, yes, no, and having Parris Glendening, the governor at the time say, I'm in favor of it, I'm building it, and then, oh, if you re-elect me, I'm not going to build this at all. That's just what you're looking at. I mean, when the highest executive in a state can go one way and then the other way, there's wiggle room galore out there, and, you know, and, I mean, politicians are people too. They're going to react to their constituents, and that's part of the whole process here, and, you know, if they need to start taking land to build access roads to a new span, the people whose land is going to be taken who are going to end up with those sound barriers in their back yard, politicians are going to be hearing from those people too.
NNAMDIWell, I mentioned alternatives earlier. Here is Jimmy in Washington D.C. with one. Jimmy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMMYHello. I'm really curious why you guys haven't looked at a ferry system. I've traveled all over the world. I've seen amazing ferry systems in Greece. Actually in Mexico, every time I travel to Mexico I take a ferry system over to Cozymel, and it's hard to believe that in this sophisticated country that we can't build a ferry system that can cross the Bay. Even in foul weather there are ferry systems that work just fine. Look at Seattle. The whole place is riddled with ferry systems.
NNAMDIAnd we got an email Kate, Bruce, who says, "Where is the discussion of ferry service to multiple sites on the Maryland shore? In the San Francisco area, people enjoy multiple ferries they can ride for their commutes. Bruce Gartner, your turn.
GARTNERWell, the ferries have been proposed at different times throughout this history of the state. There's been multiple studies on those systems, both along the Potomac River, across the Bay. Those still require subsidies. They don't generally, when we've looked at them, don't generally pay for themselves, and you have the infrastructure associated with ferry landings, and getting the cars to the roads, et cetera. So it's not as simple as you might things just to say, well, let's have people get on boats and the time frame that that takes as well.
GARTNERAnd there's not kind a population centers. In New York you have ferries and they're not auto-based, so they're getting off and they're getting onto transit systems or major employment centers right along the shore, so you don't have the commutes on -- long commutes on either side of the ferry.
NNAMDIJimmy, thank you very much for your call. And Bruce, we got this email from Alberta who says -- Alberto, who says, "Why aren't the clearances under each of the spans available? Only the main span and the eastern span have the clearance listed in the nautical chart. Some sailboats have hit the bridge with their masts when going under other spans, but a lot of sailboats and power boats that could easily use them prefer the main span because they feel safer. It would be nice to have all the clearances available."
GARTNERWell, I did a lot a preparation for this show, and I must say that I didn't think about that question, so I'd have to look into that. And I'm from actually the Annapolis area, so I have a number of people I can check with on that, including my own agency.
THOMSONAnd as 12 years as the outdoors writer for The Sun, this is the first time I have ever heard anybody say, hey, what about posting those clearances. So that's a very interesting, and maybe valid point. Bruce, you're going to get right on that with a spray can and, you know, paint numbers?
GARTNERAt least something on the Internet.
NNAMDIAlberto, thank you for stumping the panel. Senator Pipkin, you said on this broadcast you'd like to bring supporters and opponents of a third span together to hash out the question and reach a decision even if it's no. How would a definitive vote against a third span change the planning? Planning for jobs and planning for housing on the eastern shore.
PIPKINI think, you know, if there's not going to be relief and traffic continues to grow over time, and, you know, if it makes thing uneconomic relative to that, then, you know, people need to be told that, and that I envision is that we need to move some of the job growth that's currently on the western side of Bay to the east, and concentrate in those areas where we have the infrastructure so that people don't have to travel across the bridge as much as they do today to be able to support their family.
PIPKINSo, you know, it's easy for people to say, well, you know, if they don't like the traffic, don't live there. Well, we could say that about a lot of places in Maryland. Is that the really the answer that we want to give people, or do we want to work together for solutions? What I would envision is that if a no-build is able to do that, you know, they need to say and explain, you know. It's not -- it's not just a matter of economics as well, there's issues such as health care.
PIPKINThe areas of the eastern shore are underserved by health care. Many of the people, particularly in Queen Anne's and the surrounding counties look to the western shore, and Annapolis, and other places for their health care. If they can't across the bridge and have access to that care, what does that mean as far as health care on the eastern shore in concerned? Well, it's a policy decision, and the governor, and those that don't want to see any kind of discussion of the bridge move forward want that -- want to end any discussion, and they need to come up to give us to solutions as to how are we gonna improve our healthcare on that side of the shore, or would they rather have people die because they don't have access, can't get across the bridge on a Friday night in a major backup.
PIPKINYou know, Queen Anne's and Caroline County, which are both counties of the bridge, are the only two counties in the state of Maryland that don't have their own hospital. We've been fortunate enough to have Shore Health invest in an emergency center in Queen Anne's County, but Caroline County doesn't have one. So we have some unique issues relative to that. So the just say no option, which has been so popular with the governor and others, has consequences.
PIPKINSo if you want to say we don't want to talk about it, then let's -- you know, I think you need to understand that there is a ramification. If the answer is no, then let's talk about improving health care. Let's improve, you know, clean jobs to the eastern shore, let's talk about what kind of world we're going to have, or is it going to be what we have today where the citizens of the eastern shore, you know, are there, they participate in the state of Maryland, they pay their taxes, but the changes of their kids and grandkids being able to work anywhere within an hour or two hours of where they were brought up in zero because people don't want to talk about, you know, building infrastructure that would help the economic viability of the shore.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Michael who says...
PIPKINThat's a discussion I'd love to have.
NNAMDIMichael says, "I find it very surprising that anyone opposes adding a new span. It's simply a volume issues. If we don't build another span, we're saying to the residents of the eastern shore that they don't matter and that they're second class citizens. We have a Republican and a Democrat advocating for infrastructure spending. We should take that opportunity to show how cooperation can get things done and improve lives."
NNAMDIAnd speaking of residents, here is Jean in Kent Island, Md. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANThank you, yes. I'm a resident of Kent Island in Queen Anne's County, and I commute every day to Montgomery County for my job. And my husband and I, our life in many ways does revolve the flow of traffic on the bridge. When it gets very crowded it backs up into all the arteries on Kent Island so that you really can't go out and go shopping or go out to eat or visit with friends or the normal things that you do every day with your life. It has a big effect on us.
JEANI think to add a third span, the existing road systems on Kent Island and beyond would have to be dramatically improved in order to be able to accommodate the flow of traffic, because there are many, many instances where traffic is just everywhere on Kent Island and you can't move, and it actually flows back across the Kent Narrows Bridge and goes on for miles backed up on the eastern shore which means then the people who live on the eastern shore can't go about their daily lives.
NNAMDIThat clapping you hear in the background is the applause for you, Jean, coming from one Senator, E.J. Pipkin. Thank you, Jean, for your call. Bruce Gartner, here's a tweet we got from someone who says, is there any talk about building passenger rail across the Bay?
GARTNERThere have been studies on transits across the Bay, but they really haven't amount to much in terms of the projections of what they would use. Transit, as many people know, as the Senator referenced before, we have major congested areas where we have some logical extensions of transit to do. Well, he might not have referenced that part, but we have some logical extensions...
PIPKINI was going to say (unintelligible) .
GARTNERSorry, Senator. But I will say that in terms of connecting the two portions of the red line in D.C. with a purple line, you know, light rail system. So the focus, at least for the department standpoint has been on those next generation transit projects, where the populations are, where the jobs are. When you look at the job centers in Maryland, it is in the D.C./Baltimore area that's really, you know, we have to make sure we serve those.
GARTNERThe transportation package that was passed in the Maryland General Assembly, just to bring up more of the statewide view, because all our citizens sit in some level of congestion. It's not just in this quarter, and I've -- we've got commuters and through traffic everywhere that we have to balance, so we are fortunate to have -- the cost of doing nothing was so significant that the general assembly did pass a revenue measure to address many of those congestion issues. This is one that's obviously important and has to be looked at, and we're going to be undertaking that first step, and studying the lifecycle cost of the bridge.
NNAMDIAnd finally, this one for each of you because we're running out of time. Candy, I'll start with you. In 2010, Travel and Leisure magazine named the Bay Bridge one of the scariest bridges in the world. A lot of people are terrified to drive across it. Is there anything that can be done in your view in the short term to make this four-mile span less fearsome?
THOMSONYou know, it's -- fear is in the brain of the motorist, and, you know, I mean, there are times when I cross the Bay Bridge that I don't think anything about it. And then there are times where, because of the weather or the kinds of traffic, you know, if it's pouring rain and there's thunder and lightning, you know, I'm a little leery as I would be crossing any other bridge, quite frankly. What can you do to make it safer? I think certainly the Maryland Transportation Authority has taken steps with the rumble strips.
THOMSONI'm always leery with overhead Xs and arrows and stuff. You know, you see them on the roads here in Washington area, and people from out of town...
NNAMDIThey confuse the heck of you, yes.
THOMSONOh, yeah. You know that somebody from out of town is going, oh, is this the, you know, is this the fast food lane that I'm getting on here?
THOMSONIt's a problem.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Bruce Gartner? Short terms measures that have -- well, obviously, you've already undertaken some.
GARTNERWe've undertaken some. We'll continue to look at that. We want to make those signs as visible as possible. We need to look at this area of the bridge where there are highest accident ratios. We'd be doing something to notify people that there are congestion ahead. We've tried to have things on the bridge to say space, you know, put space between yourself with little pink placards that one of my predecessors tried out, and that didn't seem to work, as -- because you just have driver behavior, and you have that curve in the bridge. So we will continue to look at things, and I'll leave it at that.
NNAMDISenator Pipkin, you got about 20 seconds. Anything in the short term?
PIPKINI think things about the location of where the tolls actually are taken and how the tolls are interacting, issues related to systems as far as pop-up systems have been studied that may become more viable over time to be able to get some lane separation when needed. So, you know, the MBTA over the years has looked at a number of things. They've made some improvements and, you know, the people that use the bridge have made some great suggestions over the years that the department actually has implemented, and I think, you know, that kind of cooperative effort...
NNAMDISenator Pipkin feels in the long term there has to be a conversation about a third span. He's a Republican who represents Queen Anne's County on the eastern shore. Candy Thomson is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and Bruce Gartner is acting executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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