Save time -- skip the bridge


June 09, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Mary K. Tilghman of Catonsville and Cherry M. Sparks, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, must have known it's my birthday. As a present, they got together and wrote most of my column for me.

Well, they didn't actually get together. But when Tilghman wrote in with a great question and Sparks sent an informative reply, putting the two together seemed like a natural way to take it easy.

Tilghman's query:

What causes the 8-, 10- or 11-mile backups on the Bay Bridge westbound at the end of a holiday weekend?

I got caught in a long tie-up over Memorial Day and couldn't figure it out. The traffic pouring onto [U.S.] 50 from 404 wasn't heavy. There were no accidents, not even flashing police lights on the side of the road to attract drivers' attention. No lane closures. The weather was pleasant.

Sunset wasn't an issue yet. So why did traffic slow down to 15 miles an hour, more or less, from somewhere around the Queenstown Outlets to the Bay Bridge?

Of course, the minute we crossed the bridge, the speed of traffic raced back up to normal. ... Is it really the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay as we cross the bridge that's slowing us down?

I put the question to Sparks, who replied in part:

Your reader indicates she was traveling on Memorial Day. It appears a majority of drivers heading home from the Shore traveled during peak traffic times. We also had some disabled vehicles and a crash that contributed to westbound delays.

What often happens on long holiday weekends, like Memorial weekend, is that some of the traffic heading to the Shore leaves on Thursday evening and some on Friday evening. This tends to spread the traffic out. But on the return trip at the end of the weekend, when everyone is heading to the Bay Bridge at the same time, traffic volumes can grow very quickly for a number of reasons.

Most hotel check-out times are around 10 to 11:00 A.M. Once people check out, they start their westbound trek home. The result is huge traffic volumes reaching the bridge at the same time.

Motorists traveling westbound across the bridge, going toward Sandy Point Beach, tend to look out at the water and the beautiful view surrounding them. This, in itself, causes traffic to slow, and the rolling slow down begins. While the views of the water and Sandy Point are being enjoyed by so many, more traffic keeps coming. As your reader suggests, the sheer beauty of the bay can be a factor in traffic delays.

Add on a couple of disabled vehicles that cause temporary lane closures (like the ones we had on Memorial Day at 3:30 p.m. and 4:48 p.m.) and the backup continues to grow with the decreased capacity of only two available lanes.

Add on an accident (like the one we had at 7:07 p.m.) that decreases capacity due to a temporary lane closure to clear the incident and the result is a significant backup.

By the time motorists actually reach the Bay Bridge, there may not be evidence of a crash or disabled vehicle because they've been cleared.

Because of the residual effect these drivers are dealt, it causes them to wonder, "Why the backup?" The message here is that a minor fender bender or a vehicle that becomes disabled can be a major contributor to Bay Bridge delays.

We encourage motorists to travel off-peak! Visit for the best times to travel, and call 1-877-BAYSPAN (229-7726) for 24/7 traffic conditions at the Bay Bridge.

COMMENT: There is one other possibility travelers should consider: avoiding the Bay Bridge entirely.

Before the original span of the bridge opened in 1952, there was only one land route from the Baltimore region to Ocean City: around the head of the bay via Elkton. With the road improvements made over the past 60 years, that route is more viable than ever.

All things being equal, the Bay Bridge crossing is the faster route for most of the Baltimore region - unless the bridge is having one of its periodic breakdowns. But Tilghman, who spent about an hour sitting in traffic, might have done better heading north.

From Tilghman's home in Catonsville to a generic Ocean City address takes 3 hours, 1 minute via the Bay Bridge, sayeth Google. To go via U.S. 40 in Elkton takes 3 hours, 44 minutes. (Google will plot you an allegedly faster route through the Delaware Toll Plaza, but this column recommends avoiding it. Using the intersection of U.S. 40 and Automotive Lane in Elkton in your search will cut out a four-minute jog into downtown and bypass Delaware tolls.)

So before embarking on a journey to Ocean City or other Delmarva destinations, it's wise to calculate your chances of running into one of those outrageous bridge backups. As Sparks notes, if it's say, July 6, and you're leaving at 11 a.m., your chances of an extended sit at the Bay Bridge are excellent. Suddenly the northern route doesn't look so ridiculous.

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