Five Maryland toll bridges to receive security upgrade

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Five state-owned toll bridges will be getting an $11 million security upgrade, including new lighting, sensors to detect stopped vehicles and cameras to peer above and below the spans.

Work on the bridges — Bay, Key, Nice, Tydings and Hatem — is expected to begin in late winter and take 18 months. The contract went to SAIC, a Virginia company with offices in Laurel, said Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman Teri Moss.

"This is a pretty big project for our signature bridges," Moss said. "It's very heavily technology-based."

The project is part of an aggressive homeland security plan designed by the O'Malley administration.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Maryland officials have received several vulnerability assessments of infrastructure, including bridges and tunnels. A 2005 report by Ammann & Whitney, a New York-based engineering firm, looked at threats by ships, cutting tools and explosives. The report recommended additional assessment of the threat to bridge piers from small boats carrying explosives.

In addition to inflicting mass casualties, a terrorist attack on a Maryland bridge or tunnel would cripple regional transportation and commerce for an extended period. A federal homeland security panel concluded that replacing a bridge or tunnel in a busy interstate highway corridor could take five years and cost at least $1.75 billion.

Keeping bridges and tunnels safe is easier said than done, however.

"The water is inherently difficult to patrol," said the state's homeland security chief, Andrew Lauland. "If you ever want to feel small, get in a boat and get onto the Chesapeake Bay."

Tim Bowman, technology chief for Maryland Natural Resources Police — the lead state agency for maritime security — agreed.

"Virtually anyone can get anywhere on the water. Your adversary can focus their energy on one target and you have to watch all of them. So you start out at a disadvantage," he said.

State officials responded to the consultants' conclusions with the Maryland Maritime Strategic Security Plan, which called for "a robust closed-circuit television network," physical barriers and better communications between government entities.

The transportation agency placed cameras and sensors that detect stopped vehicles in Baltimore's Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and began installing razor wire and motion sensors on bridge pilings.

Natural Resources Police received new patrol boats and a high-speed vessel for its tactical team, and opened an outpost on the Potomac River near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the National Harbor development.

In addition, the department is bringing on line a $3.4 million system of radar units and sophisticated cameras that enable it to monitor 80 percent of the Chesapeake Bay, from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to Point Lookout at the tip of St. Mary's County.

The Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network will be used not only to monitor boat traffic but to protect oyster sanctuaries and help rescue teams pinpoint boaters in distress. Units similar to those being deployed in Maryland can detect a small boat 12 miles away.

The network has eight cameras and eight radar units that tie into a command center at Sandy Point State Park. Agreements with state and federal agencies and private corporations up and down the bay extend its vision while avoiding duplication of equipment.

Patuxent Naval Air Station and a naval research lab near Chesapeake Beach are sharing radar data for the area south of Anne Arundel County. Images from cameras in Baltimore, Annapolis and Prince George's County also feed into the system. And the cameras on the five bridges will be part of the network.

"That's really leveraging our resources to get the maximum use of our dollars," said Bowman, the technology chief for Natural Resources Police.

A new software package will allow a more seamless transfer of information among the partners and permit each one to set electronic perimeters around key sites that will trigger alarms if crossed.

"It gives us the ability to share information with decision-makers in real time," Bowman said. "All they'll need is an Internet connection."

But homeland security officials are counting on low-tech watchdogs as well.

Capt. Mark O'Malley, the Coast Guard's commander in Baltimore, said dive boat operators, marina owners, boat salesmen and anglers have supplied tips about suspicious activity around the bridges that his crews have tracked down.

In one case, anglers reported seeing a group of men clumsily operating a fishing boat while snapping photos of Bay Bridge pilings — never once taking out a fishing rod. While checking the boat's registration, the Coast Guard learned that the vessel had been purchased the previous day with several thousand dollars in cash.

Before tensions went sky-high, more information was radioed to the patrol boat.

"Turns out they were just lousy boaters," said O'Malley, laughing. "The point is, we get false alarms with even the most sophisticated equipment. But you don't ignore these things, you check them out. You ignore warnings at your own peril."