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A dangerous rule for the Bay Bridge

On the evening of June 29, the National Weather Service warned that a ferocious storm known as a derecho would soon be clobbering our region. Ultimately, millions of Marylanders were left without power and many with damage to their homes and vehicles. Much of this damage — like our SUV that was crushed in the driveway — was likely unavoidable.

But some damage and near tragedies were entirely avoidable and point to the need for policy overhauls to prevent repeats. Perhaps the most vivid example of this is what happened to motorists trapped on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

As Sun transportation writer Candus Thomson reported, not only was a tractor trailer blown over and almost off the bridge, but many motorists who were trapped behind the wreck thought the bridge was collapsing and their lives ending. One driver reported first calling 911 and then calling family to say goodbye. Another, in the middle of the storm, opened his sunroof so that he might more easily escape when the car hit the water.

All of this was unnecessary and a byproduct of normally sound policy. Unfortunately, that policy, rigidly adhered to in circumstances that cried out for deviation, caused a major crash and real anguish for scores of motorists trapped on the bridge.

In the aftermath, a bridge spokeswoman, Kelly Melhem noted: "We cannot simply close a major interstate and travel artery on the basis of a forecast projection alone ..." Normally, AAA Mid-Atlantic officials would agree. We worry about backups on an artery which, on a holiday weekend — and this was the weekend immediately prior to July 4 — can carry more than 350,000 vehicles. On such weekends, backups of five to 10 miles are, unfortunately, all too common. And yes, if the bridge folks did something that caused unnecessary back-ups, AAA Mid-Atlantic would likely be highly critical.

But this derecho, packing gusts of 80 mph and leaving a path of destruction spanning 1,000 miles, was different. We knew what it was, where it was and, thanks to modern meteorology and the Internet, when it would hit specific areas, within minutes. The TV program I was watching at the time was interrupted about every five minutes to track the storm's progress across our region and to issue warnings to get to safe places, fast.

So why didn't the Maryland Transportation Authority officials who are responsible for bridge operations and the safety of its users do anything in advance? Its policy is not to, we were told. Winds have to hit a sustained 50 mph or more for officials to consider holding traffic, a bridge spokesperson explained.

Here's the disconnect between normally good policy designed to keep traffic moving, and this derecho storm. It hit hard and fast. To wait for the anemometer on the bridge to register high winds before you can act — knowing, beyond any doubt, what this storm was, where it was and when it would arrive — was a formula for disaster. Fortunately, there was no disaster this time — no lives lost on the bridge, only scores of motorists trapped and scared to death, and one heavily damaged tractor trailer.

Policies must be flexible in the face of new realities, and this storm was a very serious new reality. Just ask our region's power companies.

We know that the MdTA and its staff are dedicated to the safe operation of its facilities, but that sometimes requires innovation and flexibility — something this agency has not readily demonstrated in this matter and at least one other.

Since the westbound span opened in 1973, officials have run two-way traffic on that span to provide an extra lane of traffic in the direction with heaviest demand. This is good policy that allows the bridge to maximize the traffic flows, giving more lanes to the predominant direction. What's missing are barriers to separate the traffic flows to prevent those most deadly of all crashes: head-on collisions. After a particularly severe crash in 2007 that cost the lives of three men, I wrote the first of several letters to the MdTA urging them to install barriers to separate the traffic contra-flows.

Today, we are still corresponding, and still meeting, and still agreeing this would be a good idea that could save lives, and yet another summer is passing with millions of vehicles and their passengers crossing the bridge, separated from oncoming traffic — and potential tragedy — by only a painted line. Are there cost and engineering issues? Definitely. But could a solution to separate the traffic flows have been accomplished years ago, had there been flexibility? For sure.

It appears that we have an agency staffed with good people, rightfully concerned about safety. Yet, in some cases, these good intentions are hampered by inflexible policies. These policies are needlessly putting motorists' lives at risk — either by a predictable and known derecho, or by an unknown oncoming driver who partied all weekend at the beach and is now only a yellow line away from a deadly, head-on collision.

Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson is managing director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. He served on the Maryland commission to study the need for more traffic capacity over the Chesapeake Bay. His email is landerson@aaamidatlantic.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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