A view from the bridge

Walk: The Bay Bridge stroll began in 1975 as a Boy Scout field trip. It's now a rite of spring, allowing a rare, leisurely look at the scenery.

May 03, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Veronica Schwartz of Finksburg remembered the days when the bridge beneath her feet -- the Bay Bridge -- was just salty bay air. Those were the days when people had to drive all the way up to Newark, Del., and then down the Eastern Shore to get to Ocean City.

Yesterday, after years of best intentions, the Carroll Countian walked the 4.3 miles across the bay in the annual opening of the Bay Bridge to pedestrians. Hand in hand with her grandsons, she recalled how Maryland has changed since she was their age -- before this bridge opened a more convenient door to the Eastern Shore.

"When you're in a car, I want to stop and look, but it all goes by so fast. Now, I can look all I want," she said, scanning a horizon that includes the white peak of the State House, the green dome of the Naval Academy chapel, and what seemed like thousands of white sails on the waters below.

Grandson David, 11, decreed the bridge "pretty awesome," but was looking forward to funnel cake on the other side. Daniel, 13, fought to keep his Ravens cap from blowing away.

One day each year, the Maryland Transportation Authority bans traffic from the older of the two spans of the state's longest and tallest bridge and allows the public to take it slow and easy. What started in 1975 as a Boy Scout field trip has become a popular rite of spring.

Between 8 a.m. and late afternoon, the authority estimated, more than 50,000 had crossed over, making a one-way trek from Kent Island to Sandy Point. This year's bridge walk was one of the nicest, with bright sunshine and temperatures in the just-warm-enough 60s. (One year, bad weather delayed the walk until fall. Another year, it was canceled because of conditions.)

"It's become part of Maryland's culture," said Thomas L. Osborne, executive secretary of the transportation authority, which operates the toll bridge.

But no toll was charged to stroll. With television helicopters hovering overhead, and whitecaps dancing below, a steady parade of walkers traversed the two-lane span -- or rolled across in strollers, wheelchairs and wagons.

Some of the younger ones lost interest quickly. One girl, after about 100 yards of walking, asked her mother, "Have we gone a mile yet?" One father assured his complaining son: "You are going to live."

Some of the older kids kept their parents nervous. "Not too close to the edge," they said.

A moving experience

Billy and Josh Kostick, ages 5 and 8, took turns pulling a Radio Flyer wagon loaded with potato chips, ham-and-cheese sandwiches and their two cousins. Their mother, Dawn, a pastry chef from Pasadena, said she's been to the bridge walk three times.

"Why? To go where you're not allowed to go. To stand in the middle of the road where, normally, cars would be zooming by," she said.

The only thing she doesn't like: The bridge moves.

"It's very disconcerting," she said.

Because most of the bridge is suspended from cables -- 186 feet above the water at the highest level -- it sways a little -- enough to be noticed by the walkers.

The dual spans of the Bay Bridge are used by about 23 million drivers each year.

The eastbound span -- opened in 1952 -- is undergoing a $70 million repainting (It cost $49 million to build.). The parallel three-lane span, primarily used for westbound traffic, opened in 1973.

Yesterday, traffic in both directions shared the newer span where -- from the vantage point of the pedestrians -- the whizzing cars and tractor-trailers looked almost toylike.

Mark and Kathy Powell, pushing daughter Kelly in her wheelchair, said they can see the bridge from their home in Bay Ridge. Up close, it's narrower than he realized, Mark said.

Added Kathy: "When I'm driving, I'm too nervous to look."

The Powells were among a small crowd peering down through an expansion joint in the roadway, watching an osprey settle into its nest on a crossbar 10 feet beneath them.

Traffic jam

Every year, traffic in the area is jammed on the day of the bridge walk, but this year seemed worse.

By 8 a.m., U.S. 50 eastbound into Annapolis was bumper to bumper. Parking lots at Anne Arundel Community College, where walkers caught buses to Kent Island, filled by late morning. The lots closed briefly, then reopened for a time with cars parking on the grass. Walkers had to wait in long lines to catch buses ferrying people between the bridge and their cars.

Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping used the occasion to air its opposition to a state plan to dump dredge spoils in the bay, just north of the bridge.

Protesters' anti-dumping slogans were towed on a banner behind a plane circling overhead, they were on the stickers and water bottles the group handed out, and they fluttered in the banners of two boats.

"Our plan is over the summer to use other events like this to disseminate our information," said Patrick Welsh, media director for the group.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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