Maryland's obsolete Bay Bridge takes another life - need for a memorial plan to improve

April 27, 2011

Harry Blauvelt, a wellknown sports reporter died last Monday around 10:30am on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Bridge (CBB). He was traveling in a single eastbound lane on the older southern 2-lane span, the second lane being closed for maintenance. Blauvelt's car broke down and he stopped in the roadway - there is no shoulder. He got out of his car, which moments later was hit by a following flatbed truck driven by 63-year old Enos Sage. The impact threw Blauvelt over the bridge railing and some 50ft, 15m down into the Bay. He was dead when pulled from the water.

Blauvelt worked longest for USAToday in Washington DC and was one of the first reporters to see the golf talent of Tiger Woods whose rise and fall he chronicled. A native New Yorker he wrote sports in Oklahoma, British Columbia, California and Hawaii before coming to the Mid-Atlantic area with Gannett in the late 1980s.

70 years old he was retired. He lived with a  wife and a dog in a house with a water frontage on a narrow peninsula of Kent Island only about a mile from where the Bridge lands on the Eastern Shore. By all accounts he was in excellent health so the accident cost him probably 10 or 15 years of life.

Sage, the guy in the flatbed truck who hit Blauvelt's stalled car was probably at fault, and Blauvelt may not have been maintaining his own car, a 2001 Honda Accord, as well as he should, if it broke down. An official faulted him for leaving his vehicle... saying they recommend to drivers of disabled vehicles that they stay in, put their flashers on, and wait for help.

But regardless, Blauvelt would not have been in this predicament if there had been a breakdown shoulder on the bridge. Losing power, he would almost certainly have been able to steer right and stop out of harm's way in the shoulder.

But neither span of the CBB has breakdown shoulders.

The first span opened in 1952 and has a 2-lane deck of only 28ft, 8.6m width, allowing only 2ft, 0.6m each edge to the barrier. Until the second or northern span opened in 1972 what is now the southern span ran a single lane each direction - two-way traffic.

The northern 1972 span has a 38ft, 11.6m deck allowing barely a foot, 0.3m each side of three 12ft, 3.65m lanes. They do contraflow regularly on the southern lane of the northern span when they need three lanes eastbound.

In light traffic, engineers say, you can get away without shoulders. When vehicles are well spaced out there is less danger of the kind of rear-ending of a disabled vehicle that killed Harry Blauvelt.

But the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has a lot of heavy traffic. In fact it is the worst performing of the Maryland MdTA toll authority's bridges and tunnels. The congestion and sheer inconvenience it regularly imposes on travelers is notorious, apart from difficulty of handling incidents and maintenance.

The five tight travel lanes of the two spans are regularly overwhelmed, and there are miles of backups and delays of half an hour or more.

Average daily traffic is around 71k, but it peaks at 50% higher rates at weekend days than weekdays (90k vs 60k). That's a reflection of the recreational importance of the Eastern Shore and its beaches for weekend trips from the Washington/Baltimore area to the ocean beaches and other attractions of more sheltered waters.

Smartgrowth's contribution to congestion

The east is also less afflicted by socalled 'smartgrowth' restrictions on development that have made land and housing so expensive in 'western shore' counties clustered immediately around Washington DC.

One the delicious ironies of 'smartgrowth' west of the Bay is that it promotes larger longer commuting from the eastern shore to the huge job centers west. That gives rise to a distinct weekday westbound AM, eastbound PM peaking on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

MdTA warns motorists to avoid the bridge Fridays noon to 10pm, Saturdays virtually all-day 7am to 10pm and Sundays 11am to 10pm.

Eastbound is generally worst. The Hanson Highway US50/301 which is the main route to the bridge from the Washington DC area has two lane drops, the first from 4 lanes EB to 3 before the Severn River Bridge and the second from 3 to 2 at the toll plaza - 11 toll lanes, all stop-to-pay or roll-through transponder tolling. Sometimes the 2 lanes on the southern EB span is alleviated by running a lane EB on the northern span.

But this is tense 35-40mph 'processional' driving for the 4.3 miles, 7km either way.


Not long ago the MdTA with American Bridge/URS completed a major redecking of the 3-lane westbound span, closing the bridge each night around 11pm to remove a large deck segment and replace it with a new precast barged-in  segment - weighing between 15t and 45t - aiming to reopen the bridge before the morning traffic began.

The segments with integral concrete barrier comprised half the deck width at 20ft, 6m wide and 15ft to 45ft, 4.6m to 14m in length - an impressive nightly ballet. But this preserves the asset, doesn't improve capacity or safety.

Next the 1952 span needs work.

Little basis for 20 year 40% traffic growth

Back in 2005 there were studies of future needs and a projection that by 2025 traffic on the Bay Bridge would grow 40% - requiring a minimum 4+4 lanes in place of the present 2+3 lanes.

 Alternative crossing locations for a supplemental bridge were studied at sketch level. An extra crossing to the north helped relieve the pressure on the Bay Bridge, two locations to the south less so. But all are extremely difficult to gain right-of-way for approach roads, and none would solve the traffic problem at the existing bridge, so that idea isn't going anywhere.

Improvements have to be on the present route, designated US50/US301.

Amazingly MdTA has no plans for the present bridge and its approaches beyond maintenance of the condition the existing 2-laner and 3-laner spans. 

Most toll authorities faced with these problems would have initiated alternatives analyses and environmental impact studies and hearings.

The projected 40% traffic growth 2005-2025 now looks a flimsy basis for new capacity. 2007 saw peak traffic numbers of 13.49m measured by toll transactions - one way trips.

The previous five years (2002 to 2007) had seen traffic growth of only 5.5%. All that growth was lost in 2008 and 2009 with the housing bust and recession. 2009 traffic went back to 2002 levels. 2010 has seen a weak 1.9% improvement on 2009, but traffic was still 3.7% down on 2007 levels. Growth in the last decade was 9.7%.

see table below

Only by selecting the very fastest period of growth in recent years namely 2000-2007 (14%) and projecting that forward is it possible to get the 40% growth that MdTA used for its 2005-2025 projections. Given the continuing economic problems and the weak recovery 15% to 20% growth in traffic looks more reasonable.

Sadly with the recession and other projects - the ICC and I-95 - preoccupying the MdTA, and since the great recession shot down the 40% growth number, it has simply dropped any further study of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

'Blauvelt Memorial Plan'

It would be a useful tribute to Harry Blauvelt to resume serious consideration of improving the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Some preliminary thoughts:

Tolls are currently very low for a bridge of this expense and importance  -  $2.50 toll cars, $15 for 5-axles trucks. Cars doing >100 trips/mth on MDTA facilities get a 10% discount, cars with a Maryland E-ZPass can take advantage of a Bay Bridge Discount plan. They get to travel for $1/trip.

And all these tolls are levied one-way (eastbound) only. Westbound travel is toll-free.

Much higher revenue than the present paltry $36m/year has to be the basis for improvements.  

These are big bridge spans - 4.3 miles, 7km over water and over a major shipping channel to the port of Baltimore. They provide a much more valuable service than current toll rates reflect. Because Kent Island protrudes into the Bay the present bridge location is much more advantageous than others, where any bridge would need to be much longer - and to the south over deeper water.

Alternate DE route

Ocean City MD is about midpoint on the Eastern Shore beaches. From Washington DC via the CB Bridge this trip is 135 miles versus 200 miles (215km v 325km) via the shortest competing route through northern Maryland and Delaware on I-95 and DE1.

The bridge saves 65 miles, 110km, and if free flowing provides about an hour's time saving.  

The I-95/DE1 alternate route to the CBB also has much higher tolls at an average per trip toll (calculated as half the one way toll) of $1.25 for cars, $7.50 for 5-axle trucks.

The alternate Delaware route has car tolls of $2 Balt Harbor Tunnel, $2.50 (50%) JFK,  $4 DE/I-95, $2 DE-1 or $11.50 total.  That compares with $1.25 on the CBB. A 5-axle tractor trailer has tolls via DE of $12, $15 (50%), $4, $10 or $41.  That compares to the CBB toll of $7.50.

Second, congestion pricing: motorists who travel in busy times are imposing heavier costs than those who travel when it is free-flowing. They are slowing throughput, adding to lines, taking up other people's time. It isn't their fault, true, but it's a fact that Chesapeake Bay bridgedeck is a very scarce resource at rather predictable times and should be priced accordingly. There is no sense in flatrate tolls at a facility where demand is so variable, and roadspace so often scarce. Even small proportions of traffic moved in time to less congested periods will help a lot. Given the recreational nature of peak time traffic some time shifting should be quite feasible.

Third, there must be a plan for building extra and safer capacity. Many alternatives need consideration but it probably means a new span of 4 lanes plus shoulders each side to accommodate the peak direction of traffic - a deck about 75ft wide, 23m. The 1972 span with the 38ft, 11.6m deck could then take the off-peak direction of traffic and the original 1952 span and its 28ft, 8.6m deck held for emergency use only, and everyday use by bikers and runners. US50/301 would need serious widening too on both sides of the bridge.

A new span with  3+3 lane and shoulders both sides of each roadway with a 125ft wide deck (38m) might turn out to be the preferred solution. Then the 1952 span would be taken down and the 1972 span retained for relief and in emergencies - hurricanes.  

The all-stop-to-pay toll plaza with eleven toll lanes needs replacement too. Tolling is presently eastbound only. Tolls should be collected both directions. With virtually all the traffic local to the Washington DC/Baltimore metro areas all-electronic tolling is a no-brainer.

ESTHETICS: sadly this bridge is an esthetic disaster. Both spans are dominated by ungainly, cluttered and heavyhanded steel trussing. The main spans over the shipping channel are cleaner lined suspension bridges, but they are small in scale, and visually overhwhelmed by the great length of cluttered undertruss mounted on nasty thick pylons. Ideally - from an esthetic standpoint, you'd dynamite the lot and start afresh, with a grand 5+5 lane cable stayed structure, but this is almost certainly unfinancable and unaffordable. We have to live with the esthetic mess made by the designers of 1952 and 1972 - but not the traffic mess.

ADDITION: a reader argues that the delays at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and along the approach roads are currently so bad that traffic is seriously suppressed or diverted. He says the opening of new capacity would release that suppressed demand and attract traffic from Baltimore and points north that currently goes via Delaware to Ocean City and other eastern shore destinations. We agree that is something forecasters should attempt to quantify. Perhaps the 40% growth number is, after all, not that far off - editor.

TOLLROADSnews 2011-04-27 ADDITION: 2011-04-28 11:00

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