Repairs on Bay Bridge to Disrupt Weekend Getaways

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Emergency repairs to the eastbound span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, damaged in a fatal truck accident this month, could cause major delays over the Labor Day weekend, Maryland transportation authorities said yesterday.

Bridge officials are closing one of two lanes on the eastbound span to repair and strengthen the reinforced concrete parapet that a tractor-trailer smashed through early Aug. 10 before plunging into the Chesapeake Bay and killing the driver. The speed limit on the remaining open lane of the span will be reduced to 40 mph for the duration of the closure, which bridge officials said could last at least three weeks.

A more permanent fix could take much longer.

Geoff Kolberg, chief engineer with the Maryland Transportation Authority, said an initial investigation showed that some of the bolts attaching the concrete barrier to the bridge were corroded, although he doubted that anything could stop a loaded tractor-trailer hitting a barrier at a severe angle.

"There was corrosion on the bolts in those two sections, that is correct," Kolberg said.

The corroded bolts led bridge officials to use ultrasound and ground-penetrating radar on other sections of the parapets. Those examinations discovered voids inside the parapets that could trap moisture and cause bolts to corrode.

"We've identified some safety upgrades to the parapet walls, and we want to move on it as soon as possible," said John D. Porcari, Maryland transportation secretary.

Transportation officials said holiday weekend travelers should avoid the bridge by taking alternative routes, such as Interstate 95 to Route 1 south through Delaware, which becomes Coastal Highway.

"Having lane closures and bridge construction work over a holiday weekend is highly unusual and will certainly cause some motorists delays, but we applaud the secretary and the Maryland Transportation Authority for proceeding with these safety improvements," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Police are continuing to investigate the crash that killed truck driver John R. Short, 57, of Willards, Md. Short was hauling a load of refrigerated chicken for the Mountaire Farms poultry company in Selbyville, Del.

Witnesses said they saw a car drifting toward the center line of the two-lane span, which was carrying eastbound and westbound traffic. The Bay Bridge's three-lane westbound span was closed for maintenance.

Candy Lynn Baldwin, 19, the driver of one of three vehicles involved in the accident, has said she fell asleep while driving east on the bridge. Baldwin said she had left her mother's wedding in Baltimore and was returning to her home in the Eastern Shore town of Millington when she nodded off about 4 a.m.

Police are awaiting toxicology results before considering criminal charges in the accident, said Cpl. Jonathan Greene of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

The truck scraped along the parapet on one side of the bridge before swerving across traffic and smashing into the parapet on the other side. The impact took out 10 feet of wall and displaced an additional eight to 10 feet. The truck rode along the top of the parapet before tipping over into the bay.

The bridge's parapets were rebuilt in the 1980s to meet modern safety standards, officials said. The barriers are designed to redirect vehicles back to the roadway. Generally, when a vehicle sideswipes a barrier, the tires ride up on the angled bottom before being directed back onto the road. Even if hit at a more direct angle, the barriers are supposed to be strong enough to prevent the vast majority of vehicles from smashing through.

Porcari said that the parapets are visually inspected once a year but that it would be impossible to see corrosion within the concrete barrier.

The interim repairs include adding L-shaped brackets and steel guardrails. A more permanent solution, Kolberg said, could mean driving anchoring dowels through the concrete walls and placing a strengthening device on the back of the parapets. That, he said, would be a large undertaking.

The investigation is focusing on the part of the bridge from the toll plaza on the west side to the suspension span and on the approach to Kent Island.

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