Shawn J. Soper
OCEAN CITY — The State Highway Administration (SHA) is confident the temporary fix on a cracked mechanical part that caused the Route 50 drawbridge to be stuck in the open position for about five hours on Saturday will continue to operate correctly, but the decision looming now is when to enact a planned closure for the permanent fix.
Around 3 p.m. on Saturday, the Route 50 drawbridge got stuck in the up position while it was being closed following a routine opening. The malfunctioning bridge almost immediately caused resort traffic on a busy Saturday afternoon in late July to back up along Route 50 and the dominoes toppled backward to Routes 589 and 90, Coastal Highway and along Route 113 to Route 54 and southern Delaware as motorists attempted to find alternative routes into Ocean City, essentially causing gridlock across much of northern Worcester County.
“The bridge tender said his control panels showed the bridge was in the closed position, but he could clearly just look out the window and see that it wasn’t,” said SHA spokesman David Buck on Monday. “He tried to open and close it several times, but it always got stuck in the same spot. There was a gap of about five feet and he couldn’t get it to close flush.”
The bridge remained stuck in the open position for about five hours until SHA’s private-sector engineering firm, Covington, which routinely maintains and inspects the bridge, could get on scene to analyze the problem.
In an otherwise luckless situation, the chief engineer was on vacation in Ocean City and was fishing offshore before he was brought in to begin assessing the problem with the bridge.
Around 8 p.m., with the traffic backups now spiraling in every direction in and around the resort area, the decision was made to hand-crank the broken span into the closed position to begin allowing vehicles to access the bridge in and out of the resort. At 10 p.m., the bridge was hand-cranked to the open position again to allow boats caught on the south side of the span to get back into their marinas and ports. Anecdotally, some fishing boats and larger vessels were forced to put in at marinas south of the bridge and in West Ocean City and were brought back on Sunday when the bridge was operational again.
Buck said the problem was caused by a cracked mount on the drawbridge’s drive shaft that would not allow the span to be lowered. He compared the part to a mount on the drive shaft of a truck and said there were four of them on the drawbridge’s mechanical system that allows the span to be raised and lowered.
“One of the four cracked and failed and the bridge couldn’t go down completely,” he said. “There was a five-foot gap with the west side of the bridge higher. They were able to bypass the electrical system and hand-crank the bridge into the closed position. Opening the bridge wasn’t a problem. It just wouldn’t go all the way closed.”
Buck said the engineers worked overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning to temporarily repair the broken mount, which, by Sunday afternoon, allowed the bridge to operate normally. However, the fix is a temporary one. Buck referenced a bygone television series to explain how the temporary repair was made.
“They had to take out the damaged part of the mount, but it’s not a part that you can go and buy off the shelf at the hardware store,” he said. “They essentially had to ‘MacGyver’ it so to speak to get it to work and that’s just what they did.”
Buck said SHA officials remain confident the temporary fix will work in the short term, but said a more permanent fix is imminent.
“We’re confident it’s going to work well and we have people here 24/7 closely monitoring it each and every time it is opened and closed,” he said. “At some point, in the near future, they’re going to go in and replace all four of those mounts and the timing of that is the decision SHA is faced with now. It took us 13 hours to make the temporary fix, but when we go in to replace those four mounts, we’ll have the parts and the mechanics and the engineers and equipment on hand to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible to minimize the impact. Again, we’re confident in the short-term fix, but we’re going to replace all of them at once and the intent. We could plan to do it in August overnight from say 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., or we might wait until after Labor Day and do it on some weeknight in there between Labor Day and Sunfest. The decision will be based on the least possible impact.”
Buck said the Route 50 span is maintained and inspected monthly, 12 months out of the year and there were no indications the mount in question was in danger of failing.
“The last inspection didn’t show anything that indicated this part was going to crack and fail,” he said. “It’s something very difficult to see and it malfunctioned or fatigued out of sight.”
Buck also said there are no guarantees there won’t be other mechanical issues with the bridge, although, again, engineers remain on site and will monitor each and every opening and closure in the meantime.
“This drawbridge literally has hundreds of moving parts, so we never say never,” he said. “It would be completely irresponsible of me to say something won’t happen again, but everything that can be done is being done.”
The knee-jerk reaction from the thousands of motorists stranded on either side of the broken span on Saturday is that the time is now to replace the Route 50 bridge built in the 1940s. There is a plan in place to replace the bridge, but that is likely around 20 years out. In the meantime, the drawbridge component will be upgraded, maintained and repaired as necessary.
“The thing to remember is, this was a mechanical issue and not a structural issue,” said Buck. “There is plenty of life left in this bridge. We’ve been pretty fortunate we haven’t had problems like this in the past. When a new bridge is built in the future, it will still be a drawbridge.”
Buck said SHA is cognizant of the hardship suffered by those snared in the gridlock, but said it was largely unpreventable.
“The timing really couldn’t have been much worse on a Saturday afternoon in late July with the changeover day for hotels and condos and all of those people trying to get in and out of Ocean City,” he said. “We’re aware of that, but we did what we had to do and we’d rather have major backups and make sure the bridge was completely safe.”