KENT ISLAND -- The old Kent Narrows drawbridge, the cause of epic bottlenecks and roadside picnics for two generations of beach-bound motorists, is to become a quaint landmark today as a massive new bridge 100 yards north fully opens for traffic.
State transportation officials and area politicians gathered in the morning mist near the crest of the new 3,000-foot-long, six-lane concrete span and cut the ribbon on the eastbound lanes yesterday, 18 months after construction began and several weeks after the westbound lanes opened. Eastbound traffic is to begin using the span this morning.
The officials praised the $35.4 million bridge, which is opening six months ahead of schedule, as a blessing for tourists who, since the first Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952, have had to wait while the drawbridge let boats pass. Boaters will see more frequent openings of the old drawbridge, which will still serve local traffic, and area residents will no longer be trapped by summer traffic jams.
But some Eastern Shore natives are ambivalent about the new span, seeing it as another sign that their once-isolated rural tidewater is being changed rapidly by visitors and new residents from across the Chesapeake.
"I guess the new bridge is more of a convenience for everybody," said Edward Severa, a 35-year-old landscape worker from Chester, who sat in front of a 7-Eleven store sipping coffee in his pickup truck. "But I kind of like the old things, really. That bridge makes it look real modern around here."
Improvements like the bridge, he said, mean more jobs, more shopping centers, more strangers moving in. All the congestion is driving natives away. He said he is looking to move north to the Centreville area. "I used to know everybody here," he said. "I hardly know anybody around here now."
Glenn Foster, a 49-year-old construction foreman from Centreville, said the new bridge was probably more important to tourists headed for Ocean City than area residents. Most of his neighbors, he said, were farmers and watermen who don't think much of beach vacations.
"Weekend times, they've had enough water and they've had enough sun," he said.
But Delegate John M. Ashley Jr., D-Queen Anne's, who persuaded the administration of former Gov. Harry R. Hughes to begin planning construction of the bridge in 1986, said the bridge would benefit Kent Island more than the rest of the state.
During the summer, he said at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, his constituents "couldn't get the fire trucks across [U.S. 50], they couldn't shop, they couldn't get across the highway from Thursday to Monday" because of the traffic jams on U.S. 50.
Werner L. Gruber, a member of the State Highway Administration from Salisbury, said the new bridge foreshadows the day when motorists will breeze from the Bay Bridge to Ocean City non-stop on a limited access highway -- a day he would love to see.
Hal Kassoff, state highway administrator, said he did not think there would ever be a Chesapeake-to-Atlantic freeway -- although further improvements to U.S. 50 are planned, including two new overpasses at Grasonville expected to open in the spring and a northern bypass of Salisbury, construction on which is expected to begin in several years.