FISHING CREEK -- Tokyo is a strange and distant place from which to announce funding for a new bridge here on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
But it was from the Japanese capital on June 15 that Gov. William Donald Schaefer, on a state-boosting trip to the Far East, gave the good news to the faraway home folks on Hooper Island: Their rotting timber drawbridge would be replaced.
"We feared the bridge was going to break up and a lot of school kids were going to go through it," said Lehman Adams, waterman, seafood dealer and three-time president of the Hooper Island Volunteer Fire Company.
"It was in bad shape, but they were a long time getting to fix it for lack of funds. We've been trying for a new one for 20 years," he said, recalling several town meetings held over the years in this watermen's community to demand action on the bridge.
For Hooper Island, work on the bridge has begun, and the waiting and worrying are finally over. But the time, trouble and tension involved in replacing the bridge, built in 1933, is a case study in how the nation's transportation infrastructure -- its highways and bridges -- deteriorates as wear and tear outstrip the wherewithal to repair and renew.
And lack of state and federal funds almost guarantees that the situation across the nation will get worse before it gets better.
for Hooper Island, "the people were really up in a storm," recalled Earle S. "Jock" Freedman, deputy chief engineer for bridge development with the Maryland State Highway Administration.
The wooden bridge that carried Route 335 from Cambridge over Fishing Creek to Hooper Island has been rotting for years, threatening to cut off this fingertip of Dorchester County, isolating its people and its seafood packing plants.
"It's the only way we can get on or off Hooper Island," said Mr. Adams.
The local lifeline had deteriorated to the point where it had the lowest rating of any bridge in Maryland, was limited to one-way traffic to reduce the weight load and prolong its life and, if it deteriorated further, could have been closed at any time for safety reasons.
"This old bridge up here is leaning, and the draw in it don't work half the time, the cogs in there are so old," said Mr. Adams' wife, Cecilia. "Sometimes for hours they can't even get the thing shut or open. It's really deteriorated."
Mr. Freedman, the state's top bridge specialist, said: "It's a matter of having the dollars to do the work. . . . The one thing we never cut back on is inspection.
"That allows us to keep the system safe for the public. If we have to close a bridge, we have to close it."
Of Maryland's 4,481 bridges, 1,150 have weight restrictions because they are below required structural standards. Most of the defective ones are on county roads and are not the state's responsibility.
"Ideally, you would have every bridge open so you could carry any legal load. That is the ideal system," Mr. Freedman said.
"We do the best we can with the dollars available."
Original plans for the new Hooper Island span were blocked bthe state's spending freeze.
That indirectly led to Governor Schaefer's Asian announcement.
While the governor was doing his best for Maryland abroad, the highway administration at home was informed by the state's Department of Natural Resources that underwater work on the foundations of a new bridge would be permitted only between Oct. 1 and Dec. 15 to minimize harm to the rockfish, trout, crabs and oysters that spawn in Fishing Creek.
It meant that if that window of opportunity were missed this year, the Hooper Island bridge project would have had to wait another 12 months. Last given a major rehabilitation in 1971, and in 1941 before that, the old span might not have survived that long.
"We had a critical situation. We have a bad bridge. We must replace it," said Mr. Freedman.
"With these older bridges and bridges in that kind of condition, none of us is bright enough to know how long that bridge is going to last. Are we at the end? Has it got one year left? Has it got three years? At any one time, something could isolate that bridge."
Mr. Schaefer was contacted in Japan. He decided to give an immediate go-ahead to what he termed "the state's most critical bridge project." He ordered contracts to be placed in time for work to begin this fall on the new 25-foot-clearance, fixed-span bridge. The total cost is $5,786,000, of which the federal share is $4,550,000 and the state share $1,236,000. The new bridge is scheduled to open in December 1992.
In the nation at large, no fewer than 305,270 bridges are estimated to be in need of repair or replacement over the next two decades, according to the Federal Highway Administration's report, "The 1991 Status of the Nation's Highways and Bridges."