New approach to bridge repair

Officials say Phase 2 of Bay Bridge resurfacing will be done right, and only once

March 22, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

The Maryland Transportation Authority is getting ready to work on the Bay Bridge again. And this time, it intends to get the job right on the first try.

The authority plans to resume its redecking project on the westbound span starting in September. It has revised its engineering techniques and its approach to contract management, hoping to avoid the excruciating delays that troubled the first phase of the work - much of which had to be done twice.

Officials don't want the type of miscommunication that infuriated bridge users during the first phase of the project. So they are redoubling their efforts to inform Marylanders of the plans for Phase 2. They have produced a video with sophisticated graphics explaining the techniques they will use when the work resumes. It will be shown at public meetings beginning this evening in Centreville in Queen Anne's County.

The $120 million redecking project, which began in 2001 and is expected to be done in 2009, is the first full replacement of the surface of the westbound span of what is formally known as the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge. The three-lane westbound bridge opened in 1973; the original, two-lane eastbound bridge carried its first traffic in 1952.

Since 2004, when problems in Phase 1 led to major delays and a public outcry, transportation authority officials and outside engineers have been looking for a way to minimize the disruption during the next part of the difficult but necessary project. They think they've found it.

Instead of scraping up the surface and pouring new concrete, the agency will take a modular approach to replacing the deck in the span's highest sections. Working mostly at night, cranes will lift out entire sections and replace them with prefabricated slabs now being manufactured at Sparrows Point.

The intent is to confine most of the lane closings to overnight hours during the week, avoiding the type of backups that occurred in fall 2004, when a hurry-up effort to redo faulty work prompted officials to narrow the westbound span to a single lane at rush hour. For some, the closings turned a cross-bay commute of less than an hour into a two-hour ordeal.

When work begins this fall, the contractor will begin closing lanes of the westbound span about 7 p.m. on weekdays and close the entire westbound span about 9 p.m. Two-way traffic will use the two-lane eastbound span.

The plan is for work crews to have full access to the bridge between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. four nights a week - excluding Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The work will be suspended in the peak summer travel months. The authority said it hopes to have the bridge opened for rush hour each weekday but warned that there may be nights when problems delay the reopening.

While the bulk of the deck replacement work will be done at night, the authority is planning some lane closings for related work on the westbound span after the morning rush hour. But it plans to reopen those lanes by 2:30 p.m.

Geoffrey Kolberg, the authority's chief engineer, said the agency has radically changed its approach to the second, $60 million phase of the redecking project. He said the state has engaged a new designer and general contractor - URS Corp. and American Bridge - and will work more closely with the contractor than it did on the first phase.

"We're coordinating with the contractor literally lock step," Kolberg said.

He said that in this phase, the authority will place more emphasis on getting the job done right and less on adherence to a timetable, which for now calls for completion of the project in 2009. He said American Bridge - the company that built the original westbound bridge - was chosen through a process that put more weight on the quality of a bidder's proposal than on low price.

Kolberg said an over-emphasis on staying on schedule was a factor in the problems that developed in Phase 1, when some of the original paving work had to be torn up and redone because the concrete did not properly adhere to the subsurface. A subsequent inquiry ordered by then-Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan found that project managers may have cut corners by continuing to lay concrete when the weather had become too cold.

Officials of the contractor, the Cianbro construction firm, maintained that they had repeatedly warned authority officials about the problems with the bonding chemical in 2002 and 2003 and were ignored.

In late 2004, Flanagan ordered an extreme series of lane closings in order to complete the first phase, which involved resurfacing the lower-lying "approach" areas of the bridge. Redoing the work added at least $7 million to the $60 million cost of that phase. Cianbro and the authority are still negotiating over liability issues, authority spokeswoman Cheryl M. Sparks said.

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