Westbound Bay Bridge work causing horrific traffic jams

15-mile backup Sunday leads to promises of relief

October 23, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

STEVENSVILLE - A monstrous traffic jam that backed up motorists for miles on both sides of the Bay Bridge Sunday has state transportation officials scrambling to avoid any repeats, even as work continues on the first major overhaul of the westbound span in 30 years.

Meanwhile, off-season beach-goers - there were about 124,000 of them in Ocean City last weekend - and commuters and shoppers from Delmarva can only hope to avoid anything similar to Sunday's highway nightmare.

At times, traffic was clogged for 15 miles on the Eastern Shore and up to 9 miles on the west side of the bridge.

For Easton resident Amy Steward, an afternoon drive to Annapolis for lunch with her old college roommate turned into a seven-hour ordeal that still has her fuming.

"I've lived on the Shore most of my life, and I've never seen anything like it," Steward said. "It took me three hours to get to Annapolis, four hours to get home."

The problem, according to Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman Lori A. Vidal, was about as simple and as frustrating as it can get for drivers trying to navigate the 4-mile crossing: too many cars and too few lanes.

The state is in the middle of a four-year, $45 million redecking of the westbound span, which opened in 1972.

Officials made plans for minimizing hassle, such as prohibiting weekend work during spring and summer and limiting construction to night hours during peak months for tourists.

But the project reached a point, they say, where construction crews had to shut down the center lane for about six weeks, forcing traffic onto the remaining two lanes. The center lane was closed Oct. 15 and will reopen Nov. 27.

And for the next few days - through Friday morning - the westbound span will be closed completely overnight, from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

State officials say they are looking for ways to avoid repeats of Sunday's mess. They won't say what options they're considering, but say they may announce changes this week.

In the meantime, they are urging motorists to avoid using the bridge during peak weekend hours, traveling instead before 11 a.m. or after 8 p.m.

"This is going to be our most difficult period, because that lane has to remain closed until the [Thanksgiving] holiday," Vidal said. "We're doing what we can, but we're talking about many, many people trying to use a bridge that's under construction."

On Sunday, westbound traffic began backing up from the bridge to the U.S. 50/U.S. 301 split and, at times, as far east as Talbot County, according to some drivers.

As the congestion worsened, transportation officials responded by opening one lane of the two-lane eastbound span for westbound traffic - a move that quickly produced a massive rolling back-up on U.S. 50 near Annapolis.

Tie-ups began on the Eastern Shore about 12:30 p.m. and weren't completely cleared until 10:30 p.m., officials say.

On Kent Island, residents such as volunteer firefighter Greg Adams are used to negotiating back roads to avoid highway congestion. But even small service roads are quickly clogged by drivers who look for a shortcut to the bridge.

"Whenever the bridge backs up, people try to get out of it on our local roads," said Adams.

"What we worry about is if we have a bad fire or some other problem and our help [from neighboring fire and ambulance companies] would have to come through that kind of traffic."

With as many as 12,000 Queen Anne's County residents (most of them from Kent Island) commuting to jobs across the bay, traffic tie-ups during morning rush hours have produced some problems. Last week, for instance, high winds sent construction barrels tumbling around the bridge and snarled traffic for hours.

But many island residents say last winter's construction problems were worse.

"The general consensus is that it works on most weekday mornings," said Jack Broderick, who heads the Kent Island Civic Confederation.

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