Tarpaulin system leads to Bay Bridge ordeal

An aerial view of The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was photographed by Kim Hairston.
An aerial view of The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was photographed by Kim Hairston. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

A tarpaulin system that caught too much wind forced an extended shutdown Tuesday of the westbound span of the Bay Bridge, officials said, turning the morning commute into an hours-long ordeal for thousands of Marylanders.

Workers doing overnight maintenance on the westbound bridge felt what was described as unusual vertical movement about 3 a.m., according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Authority Executive Secretary Harold Bartlett said the MdTA decided to keep the three-lane westbound bridge closed and to wait for daylight for a visual inspection. The authority sent about 30 inspectors onto the bridge, which had been expected to reopen at 5:30 a.m., and used a device called a "snooper" to examine the underside of the span, he said.

"Every incident that happens on the bridge we take seriously. We're always going to err on the side of being safe and cautious," he said.

Inspectors finally determined that there was no danger, and the three westbound lanes reopened about noon, Bartlett said.

He said the cause of the up-and-down movement appeared to be some heavy-duty tarpaulins that were installed about two weeks ago. They were designed to keep paint chips and other debris from a painting and sandblasting project from falling into the bay.

Bartlett said the vertical movement was likely caused when an unusual wind system moved through the area, catching the tarp like a sail.

"The wind probably caught it at just the right angle and created some lift," he said. "It's been dismantled at this point. We've completely taken it down."

Bartlett said the authority would seek a better way to keep debris from polluting the water. Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks said painting and sandblasting would be suspended until the agency devises another containment method.

The unscheduled inspection led to one of the worst commuting experiences at the bridge in recent years. Westbound traffic backed up as far as the U.S. 50-U.S. 301 split in Queen Anne's County at its worst, according to State Highway Administration spokesman Dave Buck. Eastbound traffic backed up as far as Ritchie Highway at one point, he said.

It took Jill Kubatko, a Grasonville resident who commutes to the Natural Resources Police office near Sandy Point State Park, more than four hours to get to work Tuesday morning.

Kubatko, whose commute normally takes 15 minutes, said she passed the time by redoing her makeup, having breakfast and signing on to Facebook. Considering the extreme delays, she said, her fellow drivers seemed to hold up well.

"Everyone seems fairly calm," she said. "One guy stepped out and went to the bathroom."

Kubatko arrived at work at 11:52 a.m., having left home at 7:45.

Christine Delise, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the group agreed with the authority's decision. "While the Bay Bridge closure resulted in havoc for the morning commute ... it was best to err on the side of caution when thousands of motorists' lives are potentially at stake."

The morning didn't go much easier for the bridge's website. According to Sparks, baybridge.com's server crashed between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., denying Web users visuals of the backup through the authority's real-time cameras. Sparks said the authority used Twitter and Facebook to get the word out.

In the early hours of the shutdown, traffic was limited to one lane in each direction on the eastbound span. Bartlett said that when the westbound backups became especially severe, the authority cleared the bridge and allowed two lanes of traffic to drive west. When the eastbound traffic then backed up, he said, two-way traffic was restored.

Bartlett said the closing of an entire span during peak travel hours was "very unusual."

"Under most circumstances, the only time we have a closing is for work we're doing on the bridge," he said. In most cases scheduled maintenance work that involves lane closings takes place at night.

The problems at the bridge spilled over to roadways on both sides of the bridge.

Buck said there was gridlock Tuesday morning on Routes 8 and 18 on the Kent Island side of the bridge, and severe congestion on Route 213 and U.S. 301 heading north toward Chestertown.

The highway agency used electronic message signs as far away as Ocean City in the east and the Capital Beltway in the west to urge motorists to consider using a route around the north end of the bay rather than the bridge.

August is one of the busiest travel months for the Bay Bridge, said Kelly L. Melhem, deputy director of communications for the authority. She said an average of 82,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge in August, 41,000 in each direction. From July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, more than 27 million vehicles used the bridge, she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Gunts contributed to this article.