Bay Bridge Lane Closure Likely To Snarl Beach Traffic

OCEAN CITY – It remains to be seen if hundreds of thousands of visitors will pour into Ocean City for the Labor Day weekend, but lane closures on the Bay Bridge that began this week will certainly make it more difficult for them to get to the resort.

State officials announced on Tuesday the right lane of the bridge’s eastbound span will be closed indefinitely as work began this week to repair and strengthen damaged parapets, or concrete barriers that line the side of the bridge. The announcement came just days before what should be a long parade of cars heading to Ocean City and the beach resorts for the holiday weekend.

Defects in the concrete barriers were discovered as the result of in-depth testing of the structural sanctity of the Bay Bridge following an accident on August 10 when a tractor-trailer traveling westbound on the span swerved to avoid a vehicle heading eastbound that crossed the center line, struck the Jersey-wall barrier and careened over the side, plunging about 40 feet into the Chesapeake Bay below. The driver of the Mountaire Farms truck, John R. Short, 57, of Willards, was killed in the crash and his body was later recovered from the water.

The accident, believed to be the first to involve a vehicle completely leaving the bridge, precipitated a massive inspection of the structural elements of the bridge. Those inspections revealed the corrosion of reinforcing steel bolts encased in the concrete barriers lining the bridge, forcing Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) officials to begin repairs and improvements on the span immediately, despite the apparent bad timing with the holiday weekend.

“Since the August 10 incident, we have been aggressively assessing bridge operations and structural elements,” said MSTA chairman John Porcari. “In depth testing done to date shows that improvements can be made to strengthen the parapet. Out of an abundance of caution, we want to execute these modifications immediately.”

While no one questions the importance of the repairs and the need to ensure the span is safe for the hundreds of thousands of commuters and beachgoers that use it each day, the timing of the repairs and the associated lane closures couldn’t be much worse. The bridge is the main conduit for hundreds of thousands of visitors bound for Ocean City and the Eastern Shore for the holiday weekend, and the lane closures will almost certainly snarl traffic on both sides of the bridge.

With gas prices, a shaky economy and a less than stellar weather forecast, it remains uncertain if the anticipated crowds will head to Ocean City for Labor Day weekend this year. Last year, an estimated 277,581 visitors poured into the resort for the holiday, which is a little more than the estimated 226,748 that came on Memorial Day this year but considerably less than the 344,756 figure for the Fourth of July weekend this year.

MDTA officials this week acknowledge the timing of the repairs and the associated lane closures was obviously not the best, but said the safety of the bridge superseded any concerns about beach traffic or commuter traffic. MDTA executive secretary Ronald L. Freeman urged motorists headed to the beach to avoid the bridge and choose alternative routes.

“The reality is that diminished capacity will lead to delays, particularly during the Labor Day weekend, but the safety of our motorists, employees and contractors is our top priority,” he said. “We’re asking our bridge commuters and local residents to work with us again during these modifications. We’re also encouraging Labor Day beachgoers to use alternate routes and avoid the Bay Bridge this weekend.”

During the right-lane closure, the posted speed limit will drop to 40 miles per hour at all times, and two-way traffic patterns will be employed in attempt to keep traffic moving as freely as possible. However, massive back-ups at peak times are inevitable, according to AAA-Mid Atlantic officials, who also urged beach-bound motorists to choose another route.

“Lane closures on the bridge over a holiday weekend create the potential for major gridlock,” said AAA-Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Delise. “Motorists really need to make alternative plans in their travel times and routes if they can.”

AAA Mid-Atlantic was highly critical of the use of two-way traffic on the bridge, which contributed in part to the August 10 crash, but the organization praised MDTA this week for their fast turnaround on the inspections and their decision to start repairs immediately despite the obvious impact on holiday weekend traffic.

“While we worry about the potential traffic delays, we applaud bridge officials for putting safety first and commend them for beginning the structural upgrades immediately,” she said. “Having lane closures and bridge construction work over a holiday weekend is highly unusual and will certainly cause some motorists delays, but we applaud the Secretary and the Maryland Transportation Authority for proceeding with these safety improvements.”

According to MDTA Chief Engineer Geoffrey Kolberg, the immediate work on the defective barriers could trigger several weeks of similar closures.

“The repairs we are starting today [Tuesday] will restore the strength of the parapet,” he said. “If our ongoing testing identifies other parapet areas in need of strengthening, immediate corrective action will begin and could take up to 10 weeks for such repairs.”

While few suggest delaying the repairs until after the holiday weekend, obviously not everyone is happy with the timing. Others, such as Eastern Shore Senator E.J. Pipkin, questioned why it took the tragic accident on Aug. 10 to reveal the unsafe conditions of the span.

“I cannot comment on the safety aspect of the rotting steel, but I do know this, the discovery would not have been made had the accident not occurred,” said Pipkin. “That really bothers me. One is forced to ask what else is there about the bridge’s stability that has not been discovered. What else do we not know?”

Pipkin said this week the fact state transportation officials decided this week, just a few days before the holiday weekend, to make immediate repairs despite the obvious impacts on traffic, reveals the extent of the concerns about the safety of the bridge.

“The decision to close one bridge lane during one of the biggest holiday weekends speaks for itself,” he said. “And what is says is that there are doubts about the current status of the bridge’s safety. We are also informed that similar repairs may have to be made at all four corners of the bridge. My confidence in the bridge safety inspection process has been shaken.”