New hope for new bridge

Progress: After a decade of lobbying, plans to replace a deteriorating Shore bridge are set in motion.

March 16, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TANYARD -- They call it the "white-knuckle bridge," this dilapidated relic of the 1930s with lanes so narrow that truckers worry about scraping their mirrors against its battered steel girders.

Offering the only Choptank River crossing for miles in either direction in rural Caroline and Talbot counties and in northern Dorchester County since 1933, Dover Bridge has vexed motorists for years. As Easton has grown to become a commercial center of 11,000, sleepy Route 331, the old Dover Road, has been transformed into a commuter thoroughfare, the bridge its dreaded bottleneck.

Now, after badgering successive governors and transportation officials in Annapolis, residents who depend on the crumbling 80-foot span -- which swings open to let boats through -- say their insistence is paying off.

Activists who have begged and cajoled for a decade were rewarded Thursday with news that the state will seek $22 million in federal highway funds to build a new span across the marshy, coffee-colored river.

It's just a small piece of an $800 million transportation list laid out by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., along with high-profile urban highways and passenger rail projects. It is a first step that in a best-case scenario could mean another decade of waiting before the first car rolls over a new Dover Bridge.

No matter, says Ron Fearins, who runs an insurance agency about five miles from the bridge in Preston, population 560. For the 37 years he's lived there, he has been an officer in the volunteer fire and ambulance company. And for 37 years Fearins has fretted about Dover Bridge.

The problem, he says, is pretty obvious if you know a little local geography or consult a map. If the span, one of only three swing bridges still operating in Maryland, is open for boat traffic (which it is 214 times a year on average), or if traffic is backed up because of an accident or disabled vehicle, add 30 miles and 40 minutes or more to the trip from Preston to Memorial Hospital at Easton, the region's closest emergency center.

Preston ambulance crews cross the river about 800 times a year. Their neighbors in larger towns such as Federalsburg and Denton make 2,000 trips or more every year.

"I've sat there in a line of traffic with a patient, wondering whether to try going around through Denton, calling for a MedEvac helicopter or what," Fearins said. "If this is a first step, I'll take it. It's the only step anybody in Annapolis has ever made."

The numbers have become staggering, local officials say. Dover Bridge and two-lane Route 331 carry about 17,000 vehicles a day, nearly half the number counted by the State Highway Administration on U.S. 50 between the Bay Bridge and Easton.

Jack Wegener, a retired engineer and inventor who lives near the crossroads of Harmony in Caroline County, says the traffic volume makes for an interesting math puzzle, one he calculated not long ago, just for fun.

"You take 17,000 vehicles, string them out end to end, and it's a line 60 miles long," Wegener said. "Now, obviously, some of our traffic is people driving round-trip, but it's still a huge amount."

It's a different number that has always worried Barry Fox -- the 10-foot lanes on the bridge. Tractor-trailers from the trucking company he founded in 1947 cross the bridge 30 or 40 times a week, hauling frozen chickens from to markets along the Eastern seaboard.

"My worst nightmare has always been that two trucks coming in opposite directions might get tangled up and then cars behind both would be involved," Fox says. "I'm telling you, it's a matter of inches, and it would be just a terrible, terrible accident."

Ten years ago, residents say, things were worse. The creaky swing bridge, which pivots rather than rises to allow boat traffic through, kept getting stuck. Angry protests by residents resulted in an on-site inspection by the governor and emergency repairs.

In the last few weeks, the state has begun $2 million in structural repairs to the aging span -- stopgap measures that include installing new grid decks and structural steelwork on the swing span. But residents know it won't last forever.

"That bridge is a lifeline for us all in this part of the state," says Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican from Cambridge. "I could see this process taking another 10 years before the first car crosses a new bridge. I hope I'll be there to cut the ribbon."

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