20,000 enjoy slow commute over the Chesapeake Bay

Fine weather and a nice view draws walkers to car-free bridge


People usually want to get over the Bay Bridge as quickly as possible, and sometimes curse the tolls and backups that can slow travel over the 4.3-mile spans.

But the Maryland Transportation Authority counted about 20,000 people yesterday who were in the mood for a leisurely trip over the water and chose to stroll from the Eastern Shore to the western one in this year's Bay Bridge Walk.

"I drive this way nearly every day," said Ken Alessi of Kent Island. "It's nice to walk it for a change."

Alessi recruited his daughters, Courtney, 10, and Angel, 13, and Angel's friend Ryan Haney, 14, to accompany him. As they neared the starting point, he said, "I like this, getting out on the bay, and it gets the kids off the computer."

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, closed the eastbound span to traffic between midnight and 6 p.m. yesterday. The other span handled two-way traffic during that time.

From 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., more than 180 buses took pedestrians from three parking areas to the walk's starting point on Kent Island. The walkers crossed on the eastbound span, which was completed in 1952 and stands 186 feet above the water at its highest point.

A steady stream of people was met with bright sunshine and cool breezes. Some strode quickly across the bridge for the exercise while others meandered and took in the view. Couples walked arm in arm, parents pushed strollers and pulled wagons, and tired children were given rides on the shoulders of adults.

The attraction is "the idea of being able to walk across one of the best-known structures in Maryland and see the Chesapeake Bay from a different perspective," said Trent M. Kittleman, executive secretary of the authority.

An added draw this year was an appearance by the seven 70-foot yachts in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, which sailed from Annapolis and rounded a buoy south of the bridge before heading to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay en route to New York City.

Walkers slowed about 1:30 p.m. to line up on the south side of the span and watch the sailboats maneuver for position as crew members hoisted billowing spinnakers to catch the wind.

Kathy Witkin of Kent Island was poised at the wall of the bridge with her binoculars as the boats approached.

"I'm excited," she said. "The adventure of the ocean race. ... It seems so magical to be able to go out on the ocean."

It was Witkin's first time walking across the bridge, and she said she was "just looking at all the boats in the water and enjoying the beautiful day."

The annual Bay Bridge Walk was canceled in 2003 when security was heightened after Sept. 11 and again last year when construction on the westbound span made it too difficult to divert traffic.

Kittleman said the 2004 walk cost $400,000, which included added security measures. Since then, she said, the authority has made better use of technology and anticipated a lower cost this year.

The authority also sold T-shirts for the first time this year to help cover the cost of future walks.

Before he cut a red ribbon to open the bridge to walkers, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said that the event is about two things: celebrating the feat of engineering that created the Bay Bridge and appreciating the Chesapeake Bay.

Noting the children in the crowd, he said, "Their grandchildren need to inherit this tradition."

Ehrlich also noted that his wife, Kendel, ran in the 10K race that preceded the more leisurely walk. "She's in better shape, that's all I can say."

Dee Beckman, 62, of Bath, N.C., said she and her husband participated in the first Bay Bridge walk in 1975. They were excited when they heard it was happening again while they were in Maryland visiting their daughter.

Beckman recalled parking at Sandy Point State Park that first year and walking across with little fanfare.

"The next year," she said, "it was a zillion people."

She praised the way it was organized this year, from transportation authority staff providing water and sunscreen on the span to people handing each walker a certificate at the end.

"They just do a wonderful job," she said.


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