More delays on Bay Bridge

1-lane traffic expected for westbound drivers

`No way to sugarcoat this'

State strives to repair botched work by winter

October 23, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Westbound drivers on the Bay Bridge face a month of one-lane travel for most of the day Monday through Thursday as workers scramble to redo a botched resurfacing job before the weather becomes too cold.

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan warned drivers yesterday that they will face "extremely lengthy backups" on the bridge starting Monday.

"The next few weeks are going to be extremely difficult for those of us who travel the Bay Bridge," he said. "There is no way to sugarcoat this situation."

Flanagan said the move is the least unattractive of several bad choices as the state tries to get its bridge resurfacing project back on track after deciding last month that at least half of the work must be redone at a cost of more than $7 million.

He says additional closings are necessary if the state is to have any chance of reopening the left lane of the westbound span for the winter.

Flanagan conceded that even with the shutdowns, rain or cold temperatures could thwart that goal and push the work into next spring. The right- and center-lane closings are scheduled to end Nov. 24, in time for the Thanksgiving weekend rush, whether the work on the left lane is completed or not.

"All of the crews in the world won't take care of things if the weather doesn't cooperate," he said.

Flanagan said he cannot rule out nighttime closings next summer - a step officials have so far avoided. He said the Maryland Transportation Authority, of which he is the chairman, is holding to its goal of completing the project in 2006.

The transportation chief stepped gingerly around the question of whether travelers should cut back trips to the Delmarva peninsula, which depends on the bridge as its economic lifeline. He urged motorists to "change their travel plans if they are capable of doing that" but did not explicitly urge them to avoid using the bridge.

The Bay Bridge is in the middle of a four-year, $70 million project to rebuild the deck of its three-lane westbound span. The left lane of the span is closed, and the new shutdowns will take away the center lane for 19 hours a day Monday through Thursday - opening only for the morning rush hour.

Until now, the authority has been closing more than one lane only at nights and on weekends. At times when all three lanes of the westbound span are closed, the authority allows two-way traffic on the eastbound bridge.

The project first ran into problems late last year when inspectors found cracks in newly laid cement on the westbound deck. When the cracks were found to have spread in the spring, transportation officials called in a consultant to study the problem.

The consultant concluded that in many places the cement used by the contractor, Cianbro Corp., did not properly bond with the subsurface layer. That left officials with no choice but to tear up 52 percent of the paving work and try again with a different type of concrete.

Officials said efforts to fix the westbound lane this month have been hampered by bad weather on at least five of the preceding 11 days. Flanagan said the concrete cannot be poured in high winds, rain or when the temperature falls below 45 degrees.

With 3,000 lane-feet completed and 9,000 to go, officials said workers need to take advantage of all the daytime hours they can.

Flanagan said the state will launch an advertising campaign to inform motorists of the closings and will work with the trucking industry to reroute traffic where possible.

The lane closings are an especially sensitive topic on the Eastern Shore, which depends on the bridge for tourism, commerce and commuting.

Memo Diriker, a business professor at Salisbury University, said the perception of long backups is as important as the reality. "Right now, the lane closing is going to be an inconvenience, but there might be a point, economically speaking, where this inconvenience turns into a real economic pain," he said. "With a second lane being closed, we may very well reach that threshold."

Diriker, who runs the university's Business Economic and Community Outreach Network, said the impact will be mitigated by limiting the daytime closings to autumn weekdays. However, he said, there are people on the other side of the bay - including golfers and retirees who prefer visits on quiet weekdays - who might drop plans for day trips to the upper Shore.

Nevertheless, the professor said expediting the work is the right move.

"I'm delighted that they're biting the bitter pill and getting it done now," he said. "Like it or not, this is our lifeline to the rest of the state."

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus said Flanagan and other officials were doing their best to fix a project that got under way during the previous administration.

"They're intensely engaged in trying to remedy a problem they inherited," the Somerset County Republican said.

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