The bridge repair project that has caused traffic nightmares for weeks is about to speed up. Tuesday afternoon, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) announced a series of changes to ramp up the pace, putting workers on day and night shifts, and working through the week of Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan directed project managers to expedite the work.
He said at a Board of Public Works meeting, “Not taking action is not an option. But I am demanding that every effort must be taken to complete this project as soon as possible. And I am demanding that all the experts look at every possible solution that is feasible.”
MDTA says it and the Maryland Department of Commerce have come up with a series of steps to shorten the duration of the rehabilitiation project and manage the traffic impact.
The project itself was unavoidable, MDTA says. The agency explains that the deck surface of the right lane has reached the end of its service life and is severely deteriorated, which requires frequent emergency patching and put drivers at risk. Replacing the bridge deck surface means making deck repairs, sealing the bridge deck, and replacing existing lane-use signal gantries and steel rail posts.
“The safety of Marylanders is our top priority every day, which is exactly why we are moving forward on this urgent project,” says MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports.
But the delays the roadwork has produced is even worse than state leaders anticipated. On some occasions traffic backups have stretched up to 14 miles, and local roads in Queen Anne’s County get choked with travelers trying to seek alternate routes.
A few weeks ago, state Comptroller Peter Franchot called for the entire project to be shut down, saying some Queen Anne’s County Public School students have been arriving to school up to two hours late, and commuters are affected on both sides of the bridge.
Now, to speed up the process, MDTA says the contractor will use multiple crews to work both day and night shifts, seven days a week. They will also work through the Thanksgiving week, which means crews won’t have to spend time preparing the right lane for traffic, removing all the jersey barriers, and restriping the lanes.
The downside: Thanksgiving holiday traffic is likely to be brutal, with the same lane closures that are in place now. Wednesday through Friday are expected to be the heaviest travel days eastbound, while Thursday through Sunday are expected to be the heaviest days for westbound traffic.
MDTA says the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners unanimously support this approach. The Maryland Department of Commerce is pushing it’s “Go Early, Stay Late” campaign to spread holiday traffic out.
“The Maryland Office of Tourism’s ‘Home for the Holidays’ initiative includes hotel packages and discounts in the Eastern Shore region, and promotion of events as a way to continue to draw visitors, while providing incentives for traveling during off-peak times,” says Maryland Department of Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz.
Additional steps to ramp up the pace include using multiple work zones in different areas of the lane. Two-way traffic operations will be used during emergencies or severe backups only, to allow crews to begin night work as early as possible. Cashless tolling will be in place on Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 8 p.m.
MDTA is also speeding up the timeline to convert the entire Bay Bridge toll area to cashless tolling as soon as possible. Some toll booths will be demolished to create wider lanes, and overhead tolling gantries will be in place to implement electronic tolling next year. Later, the entire toll plaza will be demolished and the roadway rebuilt.
MDTA has been meeting with Queen Anne’s County and Anne Arundel County leaders, as well as residents, to find a “balanced approach to westbound and eastbound traffic” approaching the bridge. Discussions will continue.
-Meg Walburn Viviano