Bridge work ahead

September 28, 2004

IT'S BAD NEWS when the deck of a bridge starts cracking within a year of its replacement. But that's what has happened to the westbound span of the Bay Bridge. Thanks to this unexpected problem, tons of resurfaced deck will have to be torn up and replaced in the coming months. Motorists are already feeling the effect. New lane closures on the bridge are causing some major traffic back-ups. Eastern Shore commuters can expect to live with them well into 2006.

How did this happen? That's a $7-million question. Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan has decided this particular disaster needs a task force of consultants to solve it, and he's hired Hal Kassoff, a former head of the State Highway Administration, to help lead that effort. Mr. Kassoff is a good choice -- he was well-regarded at the SHA and has instant credibility in Annapolis where lawmakers are certain to demand some answers, too. But it's puzzling that such expertise is even needed. If the project's contractor has made a mistake, isn't it up to that company to fix it?

In fact, Mr. Flanagan says, it's not yet clear whether the fault lies with the contractor or with the engineering firm that planned and designed the resurfacing. There's also a question whether the Maryland Transportation Authority, the agency responsible for the bridge and Maryland's other toll facilities, was properly supervising the work. He wants Mr. Kassoff to look at solving the problem, not at liability. Finding fault will be up to the state attorney general's office and others.

State officials have been aware of the cracks since January, but it was only two weeks ago that officials realized that 52 percent of the deck's overlay (its top concrete coating) would have to be replaced. The problem may lie with the concrete's formula. The project called for a mix of ingredients engineers say can be poured at temperatures as cold as 40 degrees, or about 15 degrees below normal. Ironically, that was supposed to allow the work to be completed faster and with less public inconvenience. A similar mix has been successfully used on two other Maryland bridges in recent years.

Rest assured, the bridge isn't going to fall into the Chesapeake because of this. The structure is sound; only the durability of its surface is at issue. Mr. Flanagan now must find a way to repair the bridge both quickly and correctly. But he must also make sure Maryland taxpayers aren't stuck with a toll they don't deserve.

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