Comptroller admonishes Transportation Department Secretary for major traffic
(Oct. 4, 2019) Comptroller Peter Franchot and Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford had some stern questions for state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn Wednesday about last Friday’s 10-hour traffic jam at the Chesapeake Bay bridge.
The eastbound traffic backup, which was said to have been 14 miles long at one point, occurred as two-way bridge access was restricted because of a redecking project.
Franchot, Rutherford and Maryland State Treasurer Nancy Kopp asked Rahn during a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday how such a monumental snarl could happen without notice.
“I support the critical maintenance the bridge needs and its importance, but it has been deferred for years,” Franchot said. “I am not at all convinced that suitable foresight was given, where sufficient steps were taken to mitigate the burden and safety risks associated with this massive project.
“The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is not just a luxury, it’s an unconditional economic-social public safety necessity,” he continued. “When commuters can’t get to work on time, when first responders can’t make it to the scene of an emergency and when products cannot be transported to the markets in a timely manner our entire state, frankly, suffers.”
Rahn replied there had been ample time to warn people about the construction, but unexpectedly nice weather contributed to traffic volume.
“This project has started in the planning process back in 2014,” he said. “There was a notice given all summer long to expect delays once the project started. It’s no surprise to hardly anyone that the project, in fact, started last Friday.
“We were faced with two incidences,” Rahn continued. “Unusually nice weather had brought out more people to the Eastern Shore, and there were actual traffic incidents that impaired the flow of traffic. We anticipated we would have traffic typical to a summer weekend [but] not like a major holiday as we did when it was clear that traffic was not moving.”
Rahn said the Department of Transportation began waiving toll fees last Friday at 8:20 p.m. and deployed State Highway Administration chart vehicles and state police to help expedite traffic and were able to end the congestion around 11:20 p.m.
Franchot asked what other strategies the department has considered to avoid a repeat of that situation.
Rahn said a temporary solution would be to favor the eastbound traffic flow over westbound travelers in allowing access to the bridge, although that approach should be used sparingly, like a pressure-release valve.
He also said once temperatures begin to drop, the volume of traffic should decrease.
This was not enough, Franchot countered, adding “there were all sorts of planning items that should have been looked at before the closures occurred” and that someone in the department ‘dropped the ball.’
“I admit what happened [on Friday] was not anticipated and we were not prepared for it,” Rahn said. “I would like to apologize to the public and we are working as fast as we can.”