Bay bridge blues

Editorial Notebook

August 12, 2006|By BILL THOMPSON

For most of us, the twin-span William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge is just a 4.3-mile shortcut over the Chesapeake Bay. And while contemporary travelers may take the trip between Sandy Point and Kent Island for granted, the structures - most people refer to them singly as "the Bay Bridge" - are a magnificent example of how a utilitarian amalgam of steel and concrete can produce art on a grand scale. Need proof? Just look at the black-and-white photographs of the first span taken in the early 1950s by A. Aubrey Bodine and Marion E. Warren. The latter's summer shot of a moon-bathed, sweeping highway over water remains one of the bridge's best portraits.

But the sight of the bridge doesn't make every driver's heart palpitate with awe. Sometimes it's plain fear, the kind that makes you sweat and squeeze the steering wheel in a death grip. Betsy McGlone of Baltimore says she began experiencing these panic attacks, quite out of the blue, five years ago. Her fear is that she will crash through the guardrail and plummet to the water below, which is 186 feet at the highest point. The only way she can make it across the bridge is by controlling her breathing and staring at the road in front of her.

We know another woman who says she's afraid the bridge will collapse beneath her while she's in her car. Her solution is to drive as fast as she can, hoping that if the bridge falls, it will fall behind her. She's gotten at least one speeding ticket when she reached the shore, but so far she's always made it across. The scariest parts of the Bay Bridge are the curves and, on the westbound span, the metal grating near the middle section.

Fear of bridges, or gephyrophobia, is so common that for decades the Maryland Transportation Authority has offered a service to assist people who would rather leave the driving to somebody else when it comes to crossing the bay bridge. It's an informal process in which a driver calls ahead or stops at the authority office near the toll booths and asks for assistance.

If there's only the driver and maybe another passenger, a bridge employee known as a vehicle recovery technician will slip behind the steering wheel and drive the car and the occupants to the other side. The VRT will have to get a lift back across the bridge by a co-worker. If there are more than two people, they will sit in the cab of a tow truck pulling their vehicle behind. Authority officials say they prefer to get at least an hour's notice if a tow truck is to be involved. The same courtesy is extended to bicyclists, who by law are prohibited from pedaling across the bridge.

Virginia's 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, connecting the state's Eastern Shore and Hampton Roads, offers a similar service. Bridge employees will drive you and your car across and under the bay - the structure includes a pair of two-lane tunnels - if you can't muster the nerve to do it yourself.

Like Virginia's, Maryland's Bay Bridge escort or "tow-over" service has been free (the toll has to be paid, of course) ever since the public was first permitted to cross the bridge on July 30, 1952. But those days are numbered.

For decades, the average requests for crossing assistance numbered about 300 a year. That has recently jumped to 4,000 requests a year, an astounding number by itself but consistent with the skyrocketing growth in traffic. In 1952, about 1.1 million vehicles crossed the bridge. By 1961, the traffic had climbed only to 1.5 million cars and trucks. But by 2000, it was estimated that 23.6 million vehicles used the bridges.

Crossing requests are now taking too much time from the VTRs' main duties - attending to disabled vehicles and other tasks to keep traffic flowing - says the transportation authority, which has asked local commercial tow services to consider taking over the job. There's no specific date for privatization to begin, although officials say they'd like to see it in place before the 2007 peak travel season.

Drivers who fear crossing the Bay Bridge will still have someone they can call for help. But one thing's for sure: It won't be free anymore. And that's just another cost of growth in Maryland.

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