The bridge is stuck! Residents of Riviera Beach and the small waterfront communities that hug the shores of the Patapsco River in northern Anne Arundel County say they hear that way too often.
The 52-year-old Stoney Creek drawbridge -- which goes up for boats and often doesn't come down for cars -- is a touchy topic, the mere mention of which can move perfectly normal people to eye-bulging, vein-popping, blood pressure-boosting diatribes.
It's not the daily traffic delays on the two-lane structure connecting the north and south sides of Fort Smallwood Road that bother residents. They've gotten used to sitting in idling cars for five minutes while the bridge opens to let sailboats float by. Such minor inconveniences they accept as one of the trade-offs for living a laid-back life by the water.
What gets users of the Stoney Creek Bridge steamed up is the increasing number of mechanical and electrical malfunctions that leave the bridge stuck in the up position or prevent it from opening.
The misbehaving bridge, which can get stuck for up to an hour, has made most area residents late for work, school, or unable to get to the grocery store.
"It's a sore subject around here," said Joe Dutton, who has a prime view of bridge troubles from the Cigarette Depot on Fort Smallwood Road. He and his fiancee, Linda Schwartz, who owns the business, know that the stalled cars outside the store window mean the bridge is stuck again.
"It never fails when you have ice cream in the car," said Schwartz, adding that she does a brisk business in cigars and cigarettes during bridge malfunctions.
Sometimes, said the store owner -- who has observed many bridge blunders over the years -- the bridge goes up and down even though no boats are in sight.
Meeting of Democratic club
Last month, the perennial community complaints about the Stoney Creek Bridge took on a more urgent tone at a fortuitously timed meeting of the Stoney Creek Democratic Club.
The gathering -- attended by County Executive Janet S. Owens, County Councilwoman Shirley Murphy and state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno -- was interrupted by someone in the back of the room shouting: "The bridge has been stuck for 45 minutes, and it's still up."
Outspoken club member George Harmon did not miss his chance with three elected officials lined up before him on stage. "It's a piece of junk," he told them.
It wasn't long before Jimeno and House of Delegates colleagues Mary M. Rosso and Joan Cadden dashed off a letter to the State Highway Administration demanding action to address the "occasional malfunction" of the bridge.
"The residents have raised enough concerns that we need to re-evaluate what we're going to do there," Jimeno said. "I don't think anybody who's traveled in and around the area hasn't been stuck."
In response to the lawmakers' letter, state transportation officials plan to spend about $250,000 to replace the bridge's electrical and mechanical systems early next year.
The equipment has not been upgraded since the bridge opened in 1947, replacing a 15-foot-wide, one-way span that swung open for boat traffic.
Electronic messages planned
State officials also agreed to place electronic message signs on both sides of the bridge when it's out of service to alert drivers to take alternative routes.
"That bridge was built to handle a limited number of openings, and the increase in marine traffic over the years has put a strain on it, " said Paul D. Armstrong, a Highway Administration district engineer.
State transportation officials said the bridge opens about 40 times on a weekend and up to 20 times during the week in the summer boating season.
During the week, it opens on demand and once during morning and evening rush hours.
On weekends, bridge openings are limited to every half-hour during daylight.
Even when the bridge is working properly, area residents who can't avoid crossing it for daily commutes and errands say it can be an inconvenience.
"It's aggravating," said Butch Harris, who has registered complaints about the bridge with the Highway Administration and the Coast Guard. On some days, he said, the bridge opens every 10 minutes to let boats pass through.
"You've got somebody down in a sailboat sitting back and relaxing, and 500 cars are lined up," Harris said. "To me, they should make the boats wait a little while."
Higher bridge considered
About 20 years ago, Jimeno said, state transportation planners had some interest in building a high-span bridge to replace the Stoney Creek Bridge. But business owners who would have been in the path of construction successfully fought the project.
With the area slated for more growth, including housing developments and a golf course, Jimeno said it might be time -- after addressing the immediate mechanical and electrical problems -- to think about widening the bridge.
"It was a two-lane bridge built to accommodate resident and summer traffic that's been transformed into a major roadway," he said.
Charles "Stokes" Kolodziejski -- who represented the area in the House of Delegates from 1983 to 1994 and secured state funds for a 1986 resurfacing of the bridge -- has his solution for the bridge.
"If I had my way, there would be a tunnel there," he said.