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Heavy traffic, safety concerns for Bay Bridge this holiday weekend

Posted at 6:24 PM, May 23, 2024

BALTIMORE — If you’re used to taking the Key Bridge every day, you’ve likely grown accustomed to sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. This weekend, expect more people to join you.

"There's extra traffic now using alternate routes, interstate roads. So we do see additional traffic on 95 and 895 heading through the tunnels. So we're just still doing some analysis about how that's affecting the Baltimore Beltway system. There's obviously some truck traffic increases on the West side of the beltway,” Charlie Gischlar, spokesperson for the State Highway Administration (SHA), said.

To help, the SHA is increasing roadside patrols in areas known to have heavy traffic.

And, Gischlar says, “any kind of planned lane closure that we do associated with construction, we will be suspending Friday morning. And it won't start up again until Tuesday at 9 p.m." For real-time traffic data from the state, click here.

If you're heading to the Maryland beaches - traffic on the Bay Bridge this weekend is a certainty. But maybe this year, you're more concerned about the 72 year-old bridge's safety.

After the Key Bridge collapse, many of us learned a new term: fracture-critical. The Key Bridge was fracture-critical, and so is the Bay Bridge. National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy explained what that means at a March 27 news conference, the day after the tragedy: "If a "member" fails, that would likely cause a portion of, or the entire bridge to collapse. There's no redundancy. The preferred method for building bridges today is that there is redundancy built in."

But Baltimore-based bridge engineer Greg Shafer, who we interviewed earlier this month for a story about bridge safety in Maryland, wants to calm fears.

"The term fracture critical is really scary, right? You hear that word and you say, 'oh my gosh, that must be really bad.' We know a lot about these and we look at them differently. They are inspected on a much more frequent basis and maintenance is done in a different way such that any defects are addressed early and don't become a problem."

Here's another term many of us learned recently - pier protection. Much has been made about the key bridge's apparent lack of a robust system to protect from a ship strike.

The Bay Bridge has more protection in place, including “fenders,” but it lacks dolphins, large circular concrete barriers that surround a bridge’s supports.

State transportation officials say they’re looking into ways to make the bridge safer.

"You may be aware actually we have a study to replace the bridge down there. So thinking of, you know, what we learned from this, obviously, would go into that as well,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said.

That study was announced by then-governor Larry Hogan in 2016, and was predicted to take a while to complete. State and federal authorities have spent the last eight years weighing options to either replace or expand the bridge. The first "tier" of the study was completed in 2022, with the Federal Highway Administration approving the Maryland Transportation Authority's recommendation to add a third span to the existing bridge.The second tier of the process began a couple of months later, and could take as many as five years to complete, which would bring us to 2027. In the second tier, officials will continue looking at potential alternatives to the current Chesapeake Bay crossing, as well as the environmental impacts of all possible projects. But the primary purpose of the study was to ease congestion.

In 2016, when the project was announced, then-Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said, "The Bay Bridge can be maintained safely through 2065 with preservation and maintenance work; however, studies show that by 2040, motorists could experience up to 14-mile delays. This is the first step in a long process to address the demand for additional capacity across the Chesapeake Bay.”

In light of the bridge collapse, safety may now take more of a front seat.

There's currently a deck replacement project on the Bay Bridge's eastbound span. Twice in the last week, portions of the bridge had to be shut down for emergency repairs to the temporary deck, causing gridlock for hours and concern among drivers.

We reached out to the MDTA for more information about these repairs; their response is below:

As part of the Maryland Transportation Authority’s (MDTA) Bay Bridge Eastbound Deck Replacement Project, crews are removing one section of the bridge deck and replacing it with a new pre-cast section during the same overnight shift. Instead of raised steel plates, temporary steel connection grids are used to secure the openings between panels, allowing for travel lanes to reopen each morning and for a smoother driving transition across work areas. These temporary connections are an alternative to steel plates, providing a smoother transition for drivers. Steel grids are widely used on bridges, even permanent structures including the Curtis Creek Drawbridge. For this project, the steel grids are temporary until a permanent concrete closure pour/link slab is installed.

Inspections occur regularly each day to identify any possible concerns with the temporary work conditions. Our team evaluates any issue, and a determination is made as to whether it can be addressed during routine, off-peak closure timeframes or needs to be addressed immediately out of an abundance of caution. This is what occurred during the two recent emergency closures. The safety and performance of the bridge is not impacted by these repairs.

At this time, no further emergency repairs are expected for the temporary steel grids. We will continue performing preventative inspections and monitoring the grids daily. There are no scheduled lane closures May 23 – May 27 due to the increased traffic volumes during the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Bay Bridge Redecking [mdta.maryland.gov]