Bridge work traffic ‘brutal’ for Kent Island farmers’ market
STEVENSVILLE, Md. — How’s business been at Kent Island Farmers’ Market since the state began repairs on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge last month?
In short, not great.
Since the Maryland Transportation Authority shut down the right, westbound lane on Sept. 24 to replace the bridge’s deck surface, farmers and vendors at the Thursday market said they’ve seen a decline in sales due to gridlocked traffic across the island and massive backups on highway U.S. 50 that discourage customers.
“You can’t even move around the island,” said Diane Bedlin, market manager. “It’s not only affecting people (who stop by the market on their way home beyond the island), but people on Kent Island can’t even get to the market, and that’s brutal. That hurts.”
For several weeks after repairs began, the lane closure caused miles-long backups for eastbound and westbound traffic, enraging tens of thousands of commuters who cross the bridge daily. Commutes for many were as much as two hours longer on particularly bad days.
Traffic also congested island communities near the foot of the bridge as many commuters futilely tried to circumvent the gridlock.
“What part of ‘Kent Island’ don’t you understand?” Bedlin said of watching drivers flood island roads. “There’s one way in and one way out, dude.”
Though some market vendors said the problem has eased over the last week — perhaps due to an absence of summer traffic or project alterations by the state — Vic Priapi of Priapi Gardens in Cecil County said his market sales over the last month declined between 10 and 15 percent.
The market, which operates one day a week, is open from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“A lot of times (customers) can’t get there in time,” Priapi said.
Fortunately for Priapi Gardens, which sells plants, organic produce and meat, the Kent Island market is just one of several to which Priapi belongs.
“Our product is unique, and people come just for it, but I know other vendors have suffered,” he said.
Julie Bolton of Groffs Content Farm in Frederick County, who has been selling meat products on Kent Island since 2001, said her sales dropped by as much as half for several weeks after the lane closure began. She said it recently took 20 minutes to drive nearly three miles from the market on Romancoke Road to U.S. 50.
“I’ve never had that happen before,” she said. “It’s such a bedroom community that if people can’t make it home in time for the market, it certainly affects the numbers.”
“One day, they started the repairs, and it was just crickets,” said another vendor, who declined to be named because she said she didn’t want to associate her company with the issue.
Not all farmers have been affected, however. Business at Lockbriar Farms, both at the market and the farm nearly 40 miles north in Chestertown, is thriving, James Lockbriar said. Most of his customers are Eastern Shore residents, and the farm, which includes several agritourism attractions, recently boasted a record day for sales and attendance.
“People are coming from all over,” Lockbriar said. “From Annapolis, Baltimore, even D.C.-area people.”
Though the rehabilitation project is scheduled to finish in August 2021, the repairs are urgent. The bridge’s deck surface has reached the end of its life, and much of it is patched and deteriorated, presenting a number of safety risks.
After the traffic flare-ups, Gov. Larry Hogan demanded changes to the $27 million project, which were announced last week.
Work crews on the bridge will now work around the clock, using multiple crews, including through Thanksgiving week during which the westbound lane will remain closed.
The state started cashless tolling during the day, allowing drivers to be billed after passing through tolls without stopping. The state is also planning to demolish tollbooths to create wider lanes within the plaza. Travelers are being encouraged during holiday seasons to cross at off-peak times.
The project can’t end soon enough for Bedlin. She said she already lost one vendor who committed to join the market but declined after the repairs began. Businesses across the island have changed operating hours to adapt to the traffic, but that’s not an option for the farmers’ market.
“We’ve got one place, one time,” she said.
Though the state’s changes are expected to shorten the bridge project, state officials can’t yet say by how much.
“I’ve lived here for 26 years now, and it’s amazing to me that they haven’t figured out this re-decking issue,” Bedlin said. “This is a two-year project? This is crazy.”
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