AS IF THE region didn't have enough traffic congestion, a blown repair job on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has surfaced -- unsurfaced, actually -- exacerbating what already has been a grueling test of patience for the motor cavalcades that pack the bridge even in off-beach seasons. The mess is along a two-mile section of the westbound lanes that cracked shortly after being paved and that now must be repaved. Compounding the troubles was a huge crack in communication between state officials overseeing the work and the state secretary of transportation, Robert L. Flanagan. Though department officials had been aware of the problem for months, Mr. Flanagan says he was not advised of its extent until he was contacted by a Baltimore Sun reporter about two weeks ago.
After the story broke, Thomas L. Osborne, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, resigned, stating in an authority news release that he believes a change in leadership would ensure public confidence in a consultant's review to determine where the fault lies. Mr. Flanagan, who serves as chairman of the authority, said Mr. Osborne was not asked to resign, but the secretary accepted the resignation without any expressions of regret.
Mr. Flanagan has two missions now: fix the bridge and fix the blame. So far a preliminary report has found several missteps in the handling of a special paving material called microsilica concrete, which was used so that work could proceed in cold weather when beach traffic decreases. But the weather proved too cold for mixing and placing even this type of concrete, according to industry standards and the manufacturer's specifications. Who ordered the job to proceed under these conditions?
The state must find out. An independent commission is being formed to investigate. There's the not-so-slight matter of a bill for the damage, which Mr. Flanagan says will exceed an initial estimate of $7 million. Pending a determination, the state will pay for repairs. The work to be redone is part of a rehabilitation of the whole westbound span; Mr. Flanagan says that if new concrete now being tested works better than microsilica, the resurfacing of the affected lanes should be completed by Thanksgiving, and the entire multiyear project still could be done by Memorial Day 2006.
We'll see. For now, travelers should stay tuned to the radio advisory frequencies to find out which days and hours the crews will be on the job and how lane closings will be handled. For regular bridge users it has been a long haul for almost three years already. Officials should press diligently for an on-time finish, but as the message signs leading up to the bridge say with depressing frequency, "Expect Delays."