It all starts next week - a four-year overhaul of the three-lane westbound span of the Bay Bridge that many Eastern Shore commuters are already dreading.
But Shore-bound motorists are likely to get their first, and perhaps their worst, taste of traffic backups on the two-lane eastbound bridge.
Eastbound lanes will be shut down for half an hour, 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., every weekday beginning Jan. 18 because of re-decking work being done on the westbound span.
With construction crews blocking the middle lane of the westbound span seven days a week until April 15 (except during Easter weekend), the half-hour daily closure of the eastbound lanes will accommodate wide-load trucks that are traveling west.
"With the center lane closed, the westbound span is impassable for wide loads like tractor-trailers carrying sections of manufactured houses," said Kerry Brandt, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority. "We'll stop all the eastbound traffic for half an hour every weekday to accommodate oversized loads heading west."
Engineers selected the mid-morning closure because it has the lightest traffic of the day, Brandt said. Even so, she said, two-mile backups are to be expected as eastbound traffic is halted.
The $45 million project will replace the concrete and steel decking of the westbound span for the first time since it opened in 1973, work that couldn't be put off, Brandt said. "It's at a point now where you just can't patch the potholes," she said. "After 30 years, it needs extensive work."
Transportation planners say they expect to avoid gridlock during the summer tourist season, when the bulk of the 23 million vehicles annually cross the 4.3-mile bridge, primarily by keeping all lanes open on weekends and restricting work to 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Officials say they have no plans to close the entire three-lane westbound span - though the two-lane eastbound bridge was shut down in 1986 for similar work.