An unneeded bridge over a million-dollar channel

Robert C. Keith

October 07, 1991|By Robert C. Keith

OVER THE Labor Day weekend, I captained a nature study tour through one of Maryland's least-known and most beautiful waterways, the Honga River.

Traveling in very traditional style aboard the 63-year-old renovated oyster "buyboat" Half Shell, our group of 30 departed Solomons, at the mouth of the Patuxent River, crossed Chesapeake Bay, passed through the zig-zag channel of Tar Bay and "Barren Island Gap," squeezed past the old wooden swing bridge at Fishing Creek to the Honga, crossed Tangier Sound, and proceeded up the lovely Wicomico River to Salisbury, where we spent the evening at a modern hotel.

We returned to Solomons next day, after watching the Deal Island skipjack races and enjoying a crab feast on Hoopers Island.

The upside of this story is that we were able to follow this magical route because of a million-dollar channel dredged through the "gap" last year by the Army Corps of Engineers. The downside is that, because the State Highway Administration is about to cap the channel with a 25-foot-high fixed bridge, boats the size of Half Shell can never make such a trip again.

The Honga is a river one never forgets. The low land and marshes of Hoopers Island form the southern boundary of the river and protect it form heavy seas when winds from the south rile the long fetch of the lower bay. This circumstance makes the Honga a sailor's paradise: a place where you find wind without waves.

The protected river, the picturesque fishing villages of Hoopers Island, the hundreds of wild swans making their home in Tar Bay, all combine to make this route a marvelous alternative for boaters traveling between the northern bay and such ports as Salisbury and Crisfield on the lower Eastern Shore.

For many years, recreational boaters with substantial vessels avoided Barren Island Gap because the navigation charts showed a four-foot controlling depth, with shoaling. The depth problem was remedied early in 1990 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found $1.1 million somewhere under a mattress and proceeded to dredge the channel, creating a passage seven feet deep and 60 feet wide linking Chesapeake Bay with the Honga River.

One would think this largess by the Army engineers would open a new opportunity for Maryland boaters, particularly cruising sailboaters, but it hasn't. The engineers seem to have forgotten to tell anybody what they have done. I am one of the few upper-bay boaters who know about the dredging, and I heard of it only because a diver I know worked on it. I obtained particulars about the channel depths directly form the Army engineers office in Baltimore, after phone calls to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Coast Guard drew blanks and suggestions to try someone else.

The lack of communication among government bureaucrats had ironic consequences when the Maryland Department of Transportation came along in 1989 with its plan for a 25-foot fixed bridge to replace the aging swing bridge.

The Coast Guard office in Virginia, surveying the traffic passing through Fishing Creek at a time when the charts showed the shallow channel, found, not surprisingly, that most traffic consisted of local watermen whose small vessels could fit under a 25-foot bridge (and, incidentally, do not need deep water). The Coast Guard approved the bridge.

The Coast Guard people were oblivious to the vastly improved channel until I told them about it. The chief of that agency's aids to navigation and waterways management branch for the local district wrote to me last June 7, more than a year after the engineers dredged the channel, insisting that the Barren Island passage "continues to be limited by the four-foot controlling depth . . . " After I challenged his facts he responded in another letter Aug. 14, admitting to faulty information and apologizing for "the error."

But meanwhile, because of his approval, the contracts have been let and the first pilings have been driven for the replacement bridge. Soon Barren Island Gap will be closed to sailors and many other recreation boaters for at least as long as a concrete bridge can last. All this at a time when the Coast Guard is imposing user fees on recreational boaters for the special services it provides them, and Crisfield is trying to lure more boaters into Tangier Sound.

Across the bay, the city of Annapolis has filed suit against the state Department of Transportation for planning a bridge over the Severn River without adequately considering all the social and public-interest factors.

So what else is new?

On Hoopers Island in 1980, the state highway people opened a grandiose concrete span a few miles below the Fishing Creek swing bridge. It arcs through the sky for a quarter of a mile, serving some 750 residents at a building cost of some $5,000 per resident, and provides 35 feet of clearance over waters that offer no marked channel to the bay. The bridge appears designed to outlast the eroding lands around it.

As onlookers bowed their heads at the dedication of the bridge, a Dorchester County commissioner, Thomas A. Flowers, began the invocation: "Father, today we're gathered here to dedicate a bridge that is a monument to man's stupidity, a monument to man's waste, a monument to governmental interference and inefficiency."

Perhaps Flowers can be invited to dedicate the new bridge at Fishing Creek. No doubt he could find more choice words about how the taxpayer is asked to pay good money for bad government.

Robert C. Keith is a Baltimore author and program director for B Ocean World Institute, which operates educational trips aboard ? traditional Chesapeake Bay vessels.

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