All hands off deck

Bay Bridge deck replacement project nearing end as summer season on the shore begins

May 25, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

After hundreds of nights of lane closures that have made driving the Bay Bridge a white-knuckle adventure, the work to replace the deck on the westbound span is scheduled to end this week.

Unless the weather turns perverse, the work crews that have monopolized the westbound span of the bridge at night since late 2007 will pack up the tools of their trades and give the road back to drivers.

Except for a little grinding and grooving, the roughly $65 million deck replacement project that has made bridge traffic an ordeal at night is complete. It's not just suspended for the summer — as after Memorial Day in 2008 and 2009 — but done.

When the last groove is cut, there will be no need to close the three lanes of the westbound bridge overnight. That might not be a big deal to everyone, but to early-bird commuters from the Eastern Shore who have been sharing the other span with oncoming traffic, it will come as a welcome relief.

"We've heard people are very excited," said Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the state's toll facilities.

Many of the significant milestones in the project have passed. In April, the last of 300 sections of new deck was lowered into place. This month, the last of the steel plates that acted as a temporary road surface was removed.

Work is complete on the suspended section of the bridge — the highest part with the soaring towers. Mark Travers, project manager for the transportation authority, said crews could finish their last tasks on the lower section and near Kent Island as early as tonight.

On Monday night, contractors working under the lights were putting the final touches on the project. A worker was operating a machine the size of a truck trailer to grind about a quarter-inch of rough pavement off the pre-cast deck sections. Another was going from wall to wall in an odd-looking vehicle, a little smaller than a Mini Cooper, cutting grooves into the pavement.

"It textures the deck, gives it an anti-skid surface," said Travers, who has been on the project since preliminary work began in 2006.

It was an enormous job. After more than 30 years of pounding from vehicles large and small, the deck of the westbound span, which opened in 1973, had reached the end of its useful life. The original, two-lane bridge that makes up the eastbound span, which made its debut in 1952, received a new deck in 1988.

The deck replacement project got off to an inglorious start early in the last decade. In the first phase, the authority attempted to repave parts of the bridge surface, but in 2004 the new concrete was found to be cracking soon after it was poured.

Publicity about the botched work led to the ouster of the authority's top executive, and an investigation determined that the concrete did not properly adhere to the undersurface of the bridge in cold weather.

Much of the work had to be redone, and the authority decided to perform the second phase in sections that would be manufactured off-site and put together on the bridge.

The work of replacing the westbound bridge's deck started long before the regular overnight closings began in November 2007. The bridge sections — each weighing 43,000 to 90,000 pounds and 15 to 49 feet long — were fabricated at American Bridge Co.'s facility in Sparrows Point and transported by barge to the project's staging area.

Sections of the old deck were lifted out by crane and replaced with those rattling steel plates until the new deck sections — with a concrete surface 7 1/4 inches thick — could be fitted into place. All of the work had to be done overnight and completed by 5 a.m., when the contractor was required to open the bridge to morning traffic. The contractor missed the morning deadline only once, Melhem said.

The work took several months longer than the transportation authority predicted in 2007, but officials had said at the time that after the problems during the first phase, they would take their time rather than hold the contractor to rigid deadlines.

Unlike Monday night, when temperatures were mild and breezes gentle, much of the work had to be done in bitter cold. The work continued through the winters, though the snowstorms in December and February cost weeks of lost work.

As the project progressed, there were regular lane closings on the westbound span during the peak travel period of 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Melhem said closings will continue for the maintenance that is a never-ending story on the 4.3-mile twin bridges.

In addition to the nearly $65 million deck replacement, Melhem said, the authority has spent an additional $12 million during the project for lane signals and electrical work. The next big job on the bridge: cleaning and repainting the westbound span's superstructure. Most of that work will be done from the water as drivers pass overhead without obstructions, the spokeswoman said.

The new deck should be good for 25 to 30 years or more, Melhem said, depending on weather and traffic. Then, sometime after 2035, a new generation of Maryland drivers may have to cope with a new round of closings.

Of course, the deck on the eastbound span is getting a bit worn after 22 years. Melhem said it will be due for a new deck about 2018 or so.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

By the numbers

4.3

Miles Length of the Bay Bridge.

7.25

Inches The thickness of the concrete deck surface.

22

Years How long the decking on the eastbound span has been in place.

25-30

Years How long bridge decking should last before needing to be replaced.

$65

Million The cost, roughly, of the deck replacement project.

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