Bay Bridge Gridlock Reopens Ferry Debate


WASHINGTON (Sept. 10, 2008)—Traffic and repairs on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge have some people considering an old alternative: a ferry system.

The bridge is still suffering the effects of the Aug. 10 crash that sent a tractor-trailer through a concrete Jersey wall and off the eastbound span, killing the driver. The accident itself caused hours-long traffic backups, and the temporary and permanent repairs caused even more tie-ups.

Repairs to the span were completed Sunday night, but traffic problems are expected to continue.

Traffic on the bridge has steadily grown with an estimated 27 million vehicles crossing during the 2007 fiscal year, according to the Maryland Transit Administration. Only 20.5 million crossed in 1996.

One suggested solution to the gridlock is to institute a ferry system. Gov. Martin O'Malley floated the idea during his gubernatorial campaign and called for an official investigation into its feasibility in August 2007.

An independent group drafted a ferry proposal in 2007 and submitted it to the O'Malley administration, said Craig Purcell, a Baltimore architect and co-chairman of the Ad Hoc High Speed Ferry Committee.

"They were going to review it and then it just kind of petered out," Purcell said. "You'd have to ask them what happened."

MDOT officials could not be reached for response to that question.

While Purcell's proposal may have run into red tape, the state concluded its own report around the same time that year.

The state examined previous studies, all of which concluded the same thing—that a ferry system wouldn't attract enough passengers to ease bridge congestion or justify its cost.

"The amount of impact that it would have would be marginal," said MDOT Public Affairs Director Jack Cahalan. "You would never be able to charge enough, per vehicle or per passenger, to make that ferry service pay for itself."

One study the department reviewed was a 2005 report by the state-appointed Task Force on Traffic Capacity Across the Chesapeake Bay.

"A ferry system is not a realistic alternative," said O. James Lighthizer, the task force's co-chairman and state secretary of transportation from 1991-1995. "It's like talking about travelling by horse and buggy."

Even a commuter ferry that does not transport vehicles would still prove unsuccessful, Lighthizer said.

"The more modes that are required for a trip, the less people you'll get."

While some consider ferries an inefficient relic, Purcell disagrees. He points to Washington state's ferry system as an inspiration.

That system owes much of its success to its cooperation with the area's other modes of mass transit, said Joy Goldenberg, communications manager for Washington State Ferries.

"People who are trying to get to work in downtown Seattle are able to take the ferry and then hop on commuter rail," she said. "We also have bus service at all of our terminals."

Purcell said that with proper planning, ferries could thrive on the Chesapeake.

"You're talking about changing the pattern of development on the Eastern Shore," Purcell said. "It's just like trains or the light rail."

An option aside from a ferry system is to add a third bridge span. While some have criticized the idea as expensive and overly time-consuming, others consider it the most effective way to relieve strain on the current bridge.

"I think we need to move forward with a third span," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Elkton. "The governor needs to come forward and request that study."

The MTA isn't enamored with either idea. It is focusing more on short-term solutions to make the existing bridge spans more driver-friendly.

Last week, the MTA increased Eastern Shore commuter bus service. They also believe changes in driver habits, like increased E-ZPass usage, could ease traffic flow along the bridge.

Cahalan said neither a ferry system nor third bridge span are realistic options.

A new bridge would likely take years to construct, he said, and would be subject to increasingly strict environmental laws. A 2006 state Senate bill introduced by Pipkin estimated that a new bridge span would cost no less than $2 billion.

"You've got some real stumbling blocks that stand in the way," Cahalan said. "The focus right now is to maximize the capacity of the existing structure."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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