Drivers remain stuck amid concrete work

Bay Bridge: Lane closures to repair a botched paving job keep commuters in bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour.

October 28, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

To say Kevin Miller is unhappy is an understatement.

Miller, who lives in Annapolis but works on the Eastern Shore, commutes across the Bay Bridge every day. Now, his 25-minute drive home -- with his 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth squirming in her car seat -- takes more than twice that long in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A botched paving job has left just one westbound lane open during evening rush hour.

"It doesn't make me feel good about the planning that went into this," Miller says of the Maryland Transportation Authority's latest attempts to get the concrete to stick.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption with an article yesterday about construction on the Bay Bridge should have placed the traffic backup in the eastbound lanes. Repairs on the westbound span led to routing of all traffic to the eastbound side, resulting in the backups. The Sun regrets the error.

The agency's new lane-closing schedule, which took effect this week, closes all westbound lanes but one 19 hours a day -- including the evening rush hour -- Mondays through Thursdays. The expanded closings have turned Miller's once-peaceful drive home into a headache.

The other night, a speed-detecting sign clocked his at just 12 mph. He pointed out seagulls to Elizabeth to distract her from the delayed dinner and lack of bathroom access. "Knock on wood, she's been fine -- no potty accidents, no sudden hunger," he said.

Still, he's annoyed at the disruption.

"Any family that has two working parents, you have things you have to get done," he said. "It sets your whole schedule back."

The additional lane closings are the result of problems with a $70 million deck rehabilitation project. More than half of the resurfacing work on the westbound span has to be redone because the concrete failed to bond properly, causing cracks to appear.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan announced the new closings Friday. He says the shutdowns are necessary to expedite repairs and give the state a chance of reopening all three lanes of the westbound bridge this winter.

The ordeal is expected to last until nearly Thanksgiving as workers rush to pour new concrete before the weather gets too cold. The closings -- and the reason for them -- have commuters who depend on the bridge feeling helpless and angry.

Melissa Deckman, who teaches political science at Washington College in Chestertown and lives in Crofton, said the closings add 40 minutes to her usual evening commute of about an hour. Like Miller, she's not happy with the people in charge of the project.

"Obviously, it's very frustrating because you assume those people are paid to know what kind of concrete will hold up," she said. Deckman's consolation is that her teaching schedule means she faces the one-lane bay crossing only two days a week.

Wyatt Cook isn't so lucky. The director of human resources at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills has to make the journey from his home in Anne Arundel County five days a week.

"I would like to be able to work from home, but my position doesn't allow it," he said.

Cook said his usual 45-minute drive took two hours Monday.

"It's certainly going to disrupt the family dinner hour. But I have an understanding family, and I hope they'll leave some food," he said.

Tom Ridgely, who lives in Cambridge and works nights at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, said the new delays are part of a longer pattern of problems on the bridge.

"The last two years are the worst I've ever seen it. Now this concrete thing is going to make it drag on longer," Ridgely said. "The only thing that's consistent is the inconsistency."

Some commuters are plotting strategies to avoid the bridge. Ridgely figures he can stay with his mother in Annapolis when traffic is at its worst. Deckman expects to stay overnight with friends sometimes. When she can't, there's always National Public Radio and books on tape.

Robin Wolfgang, communications director for the Delmarva Foundation in Easton, said she is hoping to telecommute more often after finding her 45-minute drive to Annapolis now takes an hour and a half. She also wants to make more use of the health care organization's Baltimore and Washington offices.

Wolfgang says she left a job in Washington largely because traveling to Easton would be easier. "I thought this would be a great reverse commute because it was strictly miles and not traffic," she says.

While the worst delays appear to be affecting commuters who work on the Eastern Shore and drive west in the evening, eastbound travelers are feeling frustrated as well.

Catherine Leahan, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said that from time to time, if the backups on Kent Island become especially bad, traffic officers will open up one lane on the eastbound span to westbound travel.

Unfortunately, clearing a span for two-way traffic takes 15 minutes each time, Leahan said. During those changeovers, traffic runs in only one lane in both directions.

Kim Shannon Kehm, who teaches in Prince George's County and lives on Kent Island, said the lane closings will discourage her from shopping in Annapolis in the evening. She feels she is being held "hostage" on an island with few stores.

"I'm from the Midwest. I'm not used to feeling trapped like this. I feel like a rat in a cage," she said.

Sun staff writer Chris Guy contributed to this article.

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