The return this fall of construction on the westbound span of the Bay Bridge means the return of long delays for travelers.
As part of the latest phase of a five-year, $60 million project to redeck and resurface the westbound span, crews on Oct. 13 closed the center lane that carries drivers from the Eastern Shore to the outskirts of Annapolis. It's the second fall in a row that the center lane has been closed, and construction crews plan to do it again next year.
Motorists had a taste of things to come last weekend.
In an effort to clear a 12-mile (translation: two-hour) westbound backup, bridge authorities redirected some westbound traffic onto one of the two lanes on the eastbound span, which created a five-mile delay in the other direction.
"It's a juggling act," said Bryon N. Johnston Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority. "And sometimes we just can't win."
With about 70,000 vehicles crossing the bridge every day -- 12,000 Queen Anne's County residents commute to Annapolis every weekday, and thousands of visitors trek to the Eastern Shore every weekend -- it's impossible to close the Bay Bridge entirely.
The crucial center lane of the three-lane westbound span is scheduled to reopen in time for the crush of Thanksgiving travelers.
Until then, bridge travelers will find varying traffic patterns, including triple- and double-lane closures on the westbound span, during the next few weeks. Many nights, construction crews will close the westbound span, leaving one lane in each direction on the eastbound span.
This is the first time in its 30-year history that the westbound span has been redecked. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2006. The 51-year-old eastbound span was redecked in the late 1980s and shouldn't need to be decked again until 2018, Johnston said.
It's a major undertaking, Johnston said. Much of the bridge's 4-mile surface needs to be broken apart, and when the concrete is poured, it needs several hours to set. Concrete does not set properly when the temperature dips below freezing, so, Johnston said, the bulk of the work must be done in October, which is between the beach season and winter.
Center-lane closures are considered to cause the most problems, Johnston said, because traffic must split into the two outer lanes, which usually creates snags as drivers sort out which lanes to use.
To counterbalance some of the westbound congestion during morning rush hour, drivers can sometimes use a third lane, on the eastbound span, for about three hours beginning at 6 a.m. But by 9 a.m., the eastbound span reverts back and Annapolis-bound drivers are again restricted to the two outer lanes of the westbound span.
Transportation authority workers call the switch "reconfiguration" and aim to have it completed in seven minutes or less every time it occurs.
Just before 9 a.m. Friday, about 25 maintenance workers, inspectors and contractors gathered at both ends of the bridge, poised to spring into action.
Everybody's eyes were on watches.
At 8:58 a.m., the steady stream of westward traffic on both spans ceased, and workers hustled across the eerily empty roadway to slide the bright orange cones and barrels into new lane configurations.
When the crews had changed the lanes, the inspectors radioed a Maryland Transportation Authority Police officer to slowly start releasing westbound drivers back onto the bridge. They had been stopped for less than two minutes.
About five minutes later, eastbound travelers returned to both lanes of that span. The Friday morning reconfiguration took seven minutes and 30 seconds.
"They've got it down pretty good," said transportation authority inspector Kevin Weber.
Even though motorists caught in the traffic concede that the project is needed, some of them said it should be better coordinated to prevent large-scale tie-ups like the one Sunday.
Del. Joan Cadden, a Pasadena-area Democrat, said she was caught at the eastern edge of the bridge last Sunday evening for almost three hours.
"Exasperating," she said of her journey. "They should have this perfected by now."
But even transportation authority officials who commute from the Eastern Shore are still getting used to the construction-related traffic snarls.
"There's no helicopter to get us here," said Beverly Thomas, a transportation authority toll sergeant who lives on the Eastern Shore but works at the western edge of the bridge.
She said she monitors the bridge congestion through a transportation authority Web site linked to cameras at the bridge, www.chart.state.md.us. And she said she has called colleagues to advise them to leave hours early when traffic is backed up.
Johnston said the transportation authority has fielded angry phone calls about the traffic -- mostly from out-of-towners -- but that little can be done other than to advise motorists to steer clear of the bridge during peak travel and construction periods.
"Hey, it's not the construction that causes congestion," Johnston said. "It's all the cars."