Bridge Jams Not As Bad As Feared

By Eric M. Weiss and Ashley Halsey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bad weather and lane closures made the annual Labor Day weekend trek across the Bay Bridge challenging yesterday, although delays were not as serious as some had feared.

By late afternoon, when holiday traffic normally builds, backups were only three miles long heading east as vacationers apparently heeded warnings by bridge officials to take alternate routes or travel during off-peak times. Bridge authorities continued to urge drivers headed to the beach from points north of the Route 50 corridor to drive around the head of the bay rather than risk bridge delays. That, and the fact that Annapolis area employers and those bound for the beach set out earlier in the day, lightened the traffic load after Thursday's seven-mile backup. There was plenty of police presence near the tollbooths, as well as numerous port-o-potties on the side of the road, in anticipation of large backups.

Tolls on the bridge were suspended for a time to help traffic flow but were reinstated once delays eased.

One eastbound lane of the bridge is closed for repair work to fix problems found in the wake of a deadly truck crash Aug. 10, when a tractor-trailer truck crashed into the bridge's concrete side barrier. The impact took out 10 feet of barrier and displaced an additional eight to 10 feet. The truck rode along the top of the parapet, or concrete barrier, before tipping over into the bay. The driver, John R. Short, 57, of Willards, Md., was killed in the accident, which is under investigation.

In examining how the barrier gave way, investigators found corroded bolts holding the parapets to the bridge deck. Although immediate repairs were made to patch the hole, bridge officials decided to close one of the two lanes on the eastbound bridge until all the concrete railings are inspected and reinforced, even though it meant closing a lane during Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest of the year for the bridge, which links the Washington and Baltimore area with Delaware beach resorts.

"When we identified that the barriers could be strengthened, it became our responsibility to do those repairs immediately," said Lindsay Reilly, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority. "It is our obligation that when we can make it safer, we do so."

The inspections and repairs could keep one of the two eastbound lanes closed for as long as 10 weeks for temporary repairs, which include "L"-shaped reinforcement brackets and steel barriers.

After this weekend, the traditional end of the summer vacation season, the closure will affect mostly commuters who use the bridge daily.

As afternoon traffic crawled toward the bridge for a fourth day yesterday, the drivers who make crossings a part of their daily routine talked of the impact repair work will have on their lives and several shared fears that the structure was more badly damaged than authorities have acknowledged.

Jennifer Varney, whose family lives just across the bridge on Kent Island, already has made a series of adjustments and a contingency plan.

Two of her daughters attend Annapolis Area Christian School. After it took them almost three hours to get home Thursday, she pulled them from school just after noon yesterday, getting her 15-year-old excused from soccer practice.

After her daughter arrived home at 9:15 one night, Varney arranged for her girls to sleep at the home of classmates in Annapolis should there come a night in the next 10 weeks when gridlock sets in.

It has also cost her money. Varney owns Island Flowers, not far from the foot of the bridge, and reluctantly decided not to accept delivery orders to Annapolis until the bridge repair is complete.

"My fear is it must be really bad structurally to have them working on it on Labor Day weekend, the busiest traffic weekend of the year," she said.

Said Reilly: "We certainly sympathize with our commuters, especially with those who can't take alternate routes, but the decision was made with safety being the number one priority."

Bad weather twice forced the closure of the middle lane of the westbound span yesterday morning and afternoon. The three-lane westbound span was running two-way traffic to help ease eastbound congestion. The middle lane is closed during windy weather to create a buffer between opposite traffic flows.

Also yesterday, the Maryland Transit Administration said it will increase commuter bus services beginning Tuesday between Kent Island and the District. While the six additional weekday round-trips on the 922 and 950 lines had been in the pipeline due to increased demand, the state moved up the project because of the bridge-lane closures, said Jawauna Greene, spokeswoman for the transit administration.

The additional bus service will provide seats for about 330 commuters each day, she said. The MTA also has secured additional park-and-ride lot spaces on Kent Island.

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