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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this Associated Press article gave the wrong location of cracks found in the Bay Bridge; they are near the middle of the bridge.

More Flaws Found on Bay Bridge

Decaying Underside May Force Deck Replacement

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page B01

The deck on a sizable portion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge may have to be replaced, including parts of a lane repaved this fall, because the underside of the deck is crumbling, Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday.

Flanagan said the problems are on the middle third of the westbound span, where workers are more than midway through a $60 million construction project to remake the three-lane structure.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Overview: The Route 50 bridge, which connects Stevensville on the Eastern Shore with mainland Maryland at Sandy Point, consists of five lanes on two spans. What is now the eastbound span opened in 1952. The westbound span, constructed to accommodate the increase in traffic, opened in 1973.

Use: Designed to link the two parts of Maryland, the 4.3-mile bridge became the summer escape route to Atlantic beaches for many people in the Washington region. More recently, it has developed into a commuter route between residential communities on the Eastern Shore and jobs on the mainland.

Traffic: More than 25 million vehicles crossed the bridge last year, up from 1.1 million annually when it opened. Planners think daily traffic could increase by more than 40 percent in two decades. Weekday commutes would rival those on the Capital Beltway. On summer weekends, traffic congestion could last for 12 hours a day.

Problem: Rehabilitation work has been underway on the westbound span for nearly four years. This fall, flawed repaving had to be fixed. Now, cracks have been found underneath the bridge deck. The state says the repairs will not affect commuter or vacation traffic. There is no cost estimate.

"The concrete has deteriorated on the underside of the deck," Flanagan said at a news conference. "What we're talking about is a full-depth deck replacement."

He and two outside experts said drivers are in no danger because the overall structure is in solid shape. "I want to assure the public that the bridge is safe for travel," Flanagan said, adding that "daily inspections are occurring to ensure that it stays that way."

Flanagan said inspections over the weekend that were part of a review of earlier construction mistakes revealed the problems. Transportation officials said workers cut 10 holes through five spots on the bridge and found deterioration in four of them, all on the middle third of the bridge, where the deck is thinnest.

Flanagan said police have been warning boaters away because the inspections have caused large chunks of the bridge to crumble into the bay. He said the right lane of the bridge was closed yesterday and will remain closed today so netting can be placed under the span to prevent more pieces from falling.

The decaying underside is the second major problem to develop in the past few months. In September, workers discovered that a considerable portion of pavement had not been properly laid and would have to be redone. That caused officials to close lanes and, at times, the entire span -- leading to miles-long backups -- as they rushed to repave the left lane before cold weather made it impossible.

Flanagan said yesterday that some of the repaving might need to be replaced again.

"If you're asking if we have to do the work twice, you're absolutely right," Flanagan said, adding that the decision to repave the left-hand lane was "based on what appeared to be the merits at the time."

Transportation officials said that they wouldn't know the full extent of the problems until March when inspections are complete and that it was too soon to know why the underside of the structure was breaking apart. Thomas Deen, head of a team convened to look into the faulty paving job, said the bridge was inspected before the construction project began and the deck passed the inspection.

Flanagan said the pressure and strain of construction, including work done this fall to repair pavement, could have been a contributing factor.

"The milling done puts stresses on the concrete," he said. "The surface preparation work stresses" it as well.

Officials said drivers would be minimally inconvenienced by repairs. Mary Lou Ralls, a bridge expert who is part of a commission looking into the pavement problems, said the bridge could be constructed in portions at factories and installed overnight.

Maryland transportation officials added that other work that will cause lane closures, including more repaving, will start in January.

Flanagan said he is unable to estimate how much the redecking problems will cost because he is unsure of the extent of the damage. But the cost of the project is already soaring. Flanagan has said the price of the repaving project will run well above the $7 million it took to pave the first time, though he was unable to provide an exact figure.

Flanagan said that the completion date for the entire project remains May 2006 but that if the underside problems are extensive, "that does present the possibility that we may have to do . . . work beyond that."

Democrats, who control the General Assembly, assailed the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) over the continued problems on the bridge, which they said could jeopardize other road projects across the state.

"There will be a huge price to pay," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation. "This will impact not just our road projects, but it will once and for all establish the Department of Transportation as a second-rate agency."

Also yesterday, Deen said his team has been unable to specify the exact cause of the paving problems, citing the deck's relative thinness, the use of certain epoxies and cement mixtures and cold temperatures as contributing factors.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company