Residents of the Middle Eastern Shore have learned through decades of hard experience that they can't trust the Dover Bridge.
The decrepit relic of the Herbert Hoover years, which crosses the Choptank River between Talbot and Caroline counties, is designed to swing open like a gate to let boat traffic pass. But when it gets stuck in the open position, as residents say it often does, drivers can be forced to wait in miles-long lines or embark on a detour that can add 30 to 45 minutes to what is normally a 10-minute trip.
"In its day it was a nice bridge, but I think its day is done," said Tim Jester, who operates a farm stand on the Caroline side of the bridge.
Gov. Martin O'Malley agrees. The governor will visit the bridge today to announce — at long last — that the state plans to begin construction of a $50 million replacement span next summer.
The new bridge, expected to take three years to build, will rise 48 feet above the Choptank so it won't have to open to let boats pass. Unlike the current bridge, it will have shoulders where vehicles can pull off in an emergency. Plans call for the old bridge to be kept permanently in the open position for use as a fishing pier.
Among those planning to attend the announcement today is George Jackson of American Corner in Caroline County, who's been pushing the state to replace the bridge since the 1990s. Jackson, 65, has seen two previous governors announce plans for a new span, but this time he's hopeful it will really happen.
"It's been a long struggle — it has — and no governor's gone this far before," he said. "You've got a happy old fat man sitting here."
The governor's announcement is part of a road show he's taking around the state to show Marylanders the projects his administration is undertaking with the revenue gained by passing the unpopular gas tax increase he proposed during this year's General Assembly session. The Dover Bridge event will highlight several long-desired projects on the Eastern Shore, where resistance to the gas tax measure was especially fierce.
Among the projects he will announce are a $52 million new interchange at U.S. 301 and Route 304 in Centreville, a top safety priority in Queen Anne's County, and $42 million for the next stage of the widening of Route 404 — the road to the Delaware beaches.
On the Shore, replacing the Dover Bridge is an especially big deal — economically, politically and symbolically.
"Unless you live on the Eastern Shore and unless you understand the geography and the travel patterns of the mid-Shore, it's impossible to understand just how meaningful this bridge really is," said Len Foxwell, deputy to Comptroller Peter Franchot and a Dorchester County native who has been following the bridge fight for two decades. "This is not just a matter of congestion relief or transportation mobility. It is quite literally a matter of life and death for the families of the mid-Shore."
A Maryland map shows why. The Dover Bridge on Route 331 is the only crossing of the Choptank between Denton and Cambridge. If the 81-year-old, swing-span bridge is stuck open, motorists from parts of Caroline and Dorchester must drive an extra 20 to 30 miles to get to Easton by a roundabout route.
"It's our intercounty connector; it's our way to get to the hospital," Larry C. Porter, a Republican on the Caroline County Commission.
Porter said the bridge also is dangerously narrow.
"It might be structurally sound, but it's functionally obsolete," he said. "If you get two tractor-trailers passing at the same time, they hit mirrors."
Capt. Troy Plutschak of the Preston Volunteer Fire Department in Caroline said that when the bridge is out of service, it can turn a 10- to 15-minute emergency trip to the hospital in Easton to a 20- to 30-minute ride to medical centers in Cambridge or Seaford, Del. He said he's not aware of any lives lost as a result, but the worry is always there.
"It could very well hurt the citizens," he said.
While state engineers insist the bridge is safe to drive on, its appearance doesn't inspire confidence. During a tour of the bridge's underside Thursday, Jackson reached out to a rusty ledge and pulled out a flaked-off piece of rusty steel the size of a dagger blade.
"That's a piece of the Dover Bridge," he said.
In other places, deep cracks show in the concrete base, and structural steel has pulled away from the roadway.
State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a veteran Middle Shore Republican, has been the Dover Bridge's most persistent advocate in elected office. Over the decades, he said, traffic has increased to 14,000 crossings a day. By 2030, he said, traffic volume could reach 21,000 daily.
Colburn and others pointed to Jackson as the agitator who kept the project on the agenda over the years. The white-bearded activist, who changed truck tires for a living before retiring, has been taking his case for a new bridge to the highest levels of Maryland government since the late 1990s.
In 1997, he hauled a scroll to Annapolis and rolled out 275 feet of pro-construction letters on the floor of the State House. His effort won a commitment from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to come to the Shore and see the bridge that summer.
Jackson recalled the visit included a boat trip during which the governor inspected the underside. "There was a hole in the bottom of the bridge, a piece of concrete as big as the back of a pickup truck," Jackson said. He said he and Glendening decided to get out of there before something else fell.
After that visit, Glendening jump-started planning and engineering for a replacement bridge, but it wasn't until 2004 that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced he had allocated $42 million to replace it by 2011.
Construction had yet to begin when the recession hit in 2008 and the O'Malley administration deferred more than $2 billion in transportation projects. The Dover Bridge was put on hold until money from the gas tax increase became available this year.
The decision to build the bridge will not necessarily win the Democratic governor converts on the heavily Republican Eastern Shore. Some local officials still resent the state's diversion of transportation money, including local highway funds, to fill a budget gap at the depths of the economic crisis.
"Are the additional taxes worth the Dover Bridge? I would argue we'd like to have the taxes we've lost from the last five years," said Dirck Bartlett, the Republican president of the Talbot County commissioners.
Foxwell said the long wait gave Shore residents the impression they had been overlooked by state government.
"This issue has become a proxy for those who believe — correctly or incorrectly — that the Eastern Shore doesn't get its fair share," he said.
While O'Malley deserves credit for restarting the project, Jackson's role was pivotal, Foxwell said.
"I would hope that we someday name this bridge for George Jackson because he kept this issue alive and on the front burner when everyone else had thrown up their hands and walked away in frustration," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun