Bryan P. Sears//October 2, 2019
//October 2, 2019
ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s top transportation official, after a withering dressing-down from top state leaders, apologized Wednesday for lengthy traffic jams resulting from maintenance work on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn offered the apologies during a sometimes terse exchange with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Comptroller Peter Franchot during the Board of Public Works’ meeting.
“I am not at all convinced that suitable foresight was given or that sufficient steps were given to mitigate the burden and safety risks associated with this massive project,” said Franchot. “The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is not just a luxury. It’s an unconditional economic, social and public safety necessity. When commuters can’t get to work on time and when first responders can’t make it to the scene of an emergency or when products cannot be transported to markets in a timely manner our entire state, frankly suffers.”
Franchot said “someone dropped the ball” on advanced planning.
Last week the Maryland Transportation Authority began work on a $27 million maintenance project on westbound lanes of the bridge.
The work resulted in what Franchot described as anger and frustration Friday as motorists were trapped in a “traffic jam that apparently stretched for 14 miles and lasted for more than 10 hours.”
That same day, students in Queen Anne’s County were warned of possible delays in pick up and drop off times for students.
Rahn said the project, approved in 2014, included numerous warnings of potential delays including notices sent over the summer. He said the start of the project last week was “no surprise to hardly anyone.”
But Rahn said the resulting backup, which resulted in the state suspending tolls for nearly three hours Friday night, resulted from both unseasonably warm weather that spurred people to reach the beach and some “traffic incidents that impaired the flow of the traffic.”
“It was a miserable day for people trying to cross the bay and we have a number of responses to that,” said Rahn.
“I recognize and I admit that what happened was not anticipated. We did not have a response already in advance planned for it, and I think that goes to your (Franchot’s) point, and I apologize to the Board of Public Works and I apologize to the public that they experienced what they did last Friday, and we are doing everything we can, I assure you we are doing everything we can, to address this going forward,” said Rahn.
Rahn said more seasonal temperatures will also likely mean less traffic headed to the Eastern Shore. He said that will allow the agency to get through the planned construction season until late April, when all lanes re-open for the summer.
The secretary attempted to reassure the board that the project included a heightened public awareness campaign.
“We know, just like any project, that when you reduce the lanes available for traffic, we know it creates issues and we’ve approached this very much so from the standpoint of notifying the public that it was going to occur, trying to concentrate that work as much as possible so that we would impact the least amount of people,”Rahn said.
During one brief exchange, Rahn took exception to criticisms that the whole project would have received more scrutiny had the contract been vetted by the three-member panel.
“That $27 million contract does not come to the Board of Public Works,” said Rutherford, who chaired the meeting in place of Gov. Larry Hogan. “If it had come to the Board of Public Works, there would have been a little bit more attention to the whole matter. There are certain things that don’t come to the Board of Public Works.”
While contracts of this nature are not required to have board approval, they are approved by the transportation authority board, which is appointed by the governor. Rahn attempted to explain to Rutherford the process but was interrupted.
“I know exactly where it is,” said Rutherford, speaking over Rahn, raising his voice to punctuate his next sentence. “I wanted the press to know this should come to the Board of Public Works.”
Rutherford then directed Rahn to not respond to him but to answer Franchot’s questions.
“I would just say that I don’t believe that any more attention would have been paid to this project had it come to the Board of Public Works,” said Rahn.
“I said don’t respond to me, respond to the comptroller,” Rutherford said. “You’re speculating, and I could have brought more attention to it but talk to him not to me.”
Rahn said the department is planning to implement a number of strategies meant to help alleviate backups on the span. One early proposal included holding westbound traffic for short periods of time to allow eastbound traffic to pass.
That plan includes eliminating cash tolling in favor of E-ZPass and video tolls. Motorists without the electronic payment device will receive a $4 bill in the mail with the state waiving extra fees associated with video tolls.
Also, the state will allow two-way traffic at some peak travel times during construction.
“However, these are going to be narrow lanes and we are going to have to slow traffic to somewhere in the range of 25-30 mph,” said Rahn.
Rahn said the department is also working to accelerate the project and lop off as much as a year of construction. The work, however, involves the use of materials that can only be applied to the road surface when the temperatures are 45 degrees and rising.
“Frankly, we are hoping that we’ll continue to be able to do this work into November if we keep those sorts of temperatures,” said Rahn. “If temperatures dive on us and stay low, it’s going to limit what kind of work can be done in place.”r