Bridge narrows

Emergency repairs on Bay Bridge will close a lane during busy Labor Day travel time

August 27, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Just days before a busy holiday weekend, Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari ordered the immediate closing yesterday of one lane of the eastbound Bay Bridge amid concerns about the safety of the concrete barriers that make up the span's walls.

Officials estimated that emergency repairs would force 10 weeks of round-the-clock lane closings, causing serious backups.

The state took action after inspectors - examining the bridge in the aftermath of a fatal Aug. 10 crash in which a tractor-trailer broke through a barrier and plunged into the bay - found corroded steel encased in other barriers.

Officials said they have notified federal authorities in case the same safety problem exists in similar structures around the nation. The eastbound span is the original Bay Bridge, which opened in 1952.

Porcari said the bridge's deck and underpinnings are structurally sound, but officials determined they need to reinforce the concrete barriers with steel plates and extra bolts and to add some metal guard rails.

"We're taking these steps out of an abundance of caution," Porcari said.

Ronald Freeland, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the bridge, urged holiday travelers to take a northern route around the head of the Chesapeake Bay to get to Ocean City and other beach destinations.

The closing will reduce eastbound travel to one lane at off-peak hours and two lanes during the evening rush hours and other times of heavy traffic - potentially causing some of the worst congestion seen since the second, three-lane westbound span opened in 1973.

"This diminished capacity will lead to delays," Freeland said.

The work will be done around the clock and will cost an estimated $3 million, the authority's chief engineer said.

The news was cause for concern among people with plans to travel to the Eastern Shore this weekend and for businesses waiting to serve them.

Pre-wedding getaway

October bride Katie Gasemy of Severn had been looking forward to a pre-wedding weekend with her girlfriends in Ocean City, but yesterday her plans were up in the air. She weighed canceling the festivities, moving them to the Western Shore or heading to the beach by a longer, unfamiliar route.

Still, she took the news philosophically.

"Anything that is going to ensure the safety of others is necessary," she said. "If it means going a roundabout route, safety should be a priority."

In Ocean City, hotel keepers and others reacted with concern as word about the repairs began to spread.

"Any time we have a problem with the bridge, it has a negative impact for business," said Michael James, the general manager of Carousel Resort Hotel. "We hope they still come."

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan called the closings unfortunate but added that "safety does take precedence."

"We encourage people to come early and stay late," he said. "Hopefully it will not discourage people from traveling to the Eastern Shore."

Meehan said September and October are no longer the off-season. "September business is very, very compatible to, if not a little busier than the month of June," he said.

Donna Abbott, the town's public relations director, estimated that about 277,000 visitors descended on the beach town for the Labor Day holiday last year.

State officials said the decision to make the emergency repairs was part of a broader assessment of safety on the bridge - including engineering and traffic enforcement.

"Be assured, our assessment is not over by any means," Freeland said.

The early morning crash on Aug. 10 occurred at a time when traffic was running in two directions on the eastbound span because of work on the westbound span.

An eastbound Chevrolet Camaro apparently crossed the center line and sideswiped the cab of a westbound tractor-trailer, whose driver lost control of his vehicle and crashed into the wall on the other side of the bridge at an estimated speed of 55 mph.

Truck driver John Robert Short, 57, of Willards, was killed as his vehicle slid atop the barrier and his trailer broke down the wall. No charges have been brought in the crash, but Chief Marcus Brown of the Transportation Authority Police said investigators are awaiting the results of the autopsy and toxicology tests of the drivers involved.

Geoffrey Kolberg, chief engineer for the transportation authority, said that after the crash, inspectors using ultrasound and ground-penetrating radar discovered that moisture had seeped into the interior of some concrete barriers and caused corrosion of the steel that anchors the barriers to the bridge deck.

He would not speculate on whether the deterioration contributed to the breach of the barrier by the tractor-trailer. Officials have previously said the barriers were never designed to withstand the impact of such a heavy vehicle.

Kolberg said the bridge undergoes an annual inspection even though the federal government requires such assessments only every two years.

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