Keeping the Bay Bridge traffic running smoothly


If you're heading for the ocean this holiday weekend, think of Louis O. Kelley when you cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Mr. Kelley, 55, has spent his adult life trying to keep motorists happy and traffic running smoothly on the 4.3-mile spans.

A lifelong Shore resident, he joined the bridge patrol almost 33 years ago, when he was 22 and the bridge was 7 years old. He worked his way up through the ranks and in 1980 became superintendent of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, as it is officially called.

During this time, he's seen traffic backups that have stretched for miles, the construction of a second span across the bay and the changes the bridge brought to his home, Kent Island.

Q: You will have been here 33 years in August. What changes have you seen?

A: Just about everything. The volume of traffic has changed considerably. When the bridge first opened [in 1952], there wasn't quite a million vehicles that crossed the bridge in a year. Now we're close to 17 million vehicles a year. We went from one bridge and six tollbooths to a second bridge and 14 tollbooths. And then we went to one-way tolls and 11 tollbooths.

Q: How about backups? Have they changed?

A: People probably don't want to admit it, but conditions were worse then than they are now. We've had backups in recent years, of course. People traveling to the beaches on weekends will be the first to tell you they were in a 10-mile backup at the Bay Bridge.

Backups were one reason we got a second bridge in 1973. The original bridge was two lanes -- one lane in each direction -- and it couldn't accommodate heavy traffic. Take a Friday evening -- we would hold the westbound traffic and run two lanes of traffic eastbound across the bridge. Everyone on the other side of the bridge would sit for 30 to 40 minutes while we ran two lanes east.

Sunday night was the reverse. We ran two lanes west and held the eastbound traffic. People in the opposite direction would suffer and sit. And people think they have it rough now.

Q: It sounds like the bridge was too small almost from its opening.

A: Almost. When the original bridge opened, it started the influx of people moving to the Shore, and it didn't take long for the bridge to reach its capacity. Not that people didn't foresee the need [for a wider bridge], but like everything else, it takes money to build a bridge and you can only get so much.

Q: What's the worst backup you remember?

A: The worst was a 17-mile backup on a Sunday in the early '80s. It went from the east end of the bridge back to routes 404 and 50 going to Easton and Denton. It caused a four- or five-hour delay.

l Q: When did you start collecting tolls just on eastbound traffic?

A: April 1989.

Q: What effect did that have?

A: Let me defend the bridge first. For years, we were what you might say was the identity of backups in the area. They would TC say, 'The backup at the Bay Bridge is so many miles.' Well, indeed it wasn't always because of the tollbooths. It was the [U.S. 50] corridor that was having a problem. There were stoplights at intersections and the Kent Narrows drawbridge that contributed.

In the last several years, they've improved the highway, removed the lights at intersections and put in the high bridge at Kent Narrows. And we went to one-way tolls. So it's what you might call a breeze to go through, compared to what it was.

The people on the Eastern Shore now can live in a different world during the summer. They don't have to worry about the backups being all through town. They can go out on a Saturday and get a loaf of bread.

Q: What kind of problems do tollbooth operators face?

A: They do get tired feet. They have hot and cold days, even though the booths are designed to provide air conditioning and heat. They're out there with the fumes. They're out there with the dust. They're out there with the wind, the cold, the sun.

In the process, they're saying 'Thank you' to easily 400 people an hour per collector. In the peak of the traffic in the summertime, a collector will handle seven or eight hours of over 400 transactions an hour. It's hard to do that and be real nice and say, 'Hi! Glad to see you!' every time.

And then they do get the patron who just had a problem down the road and comes up to a booth and says, 'Why do I have to pay this much money?' They have to have a bit of finesse and say, 'Thank you.' They're an information bureau. They're an ambassador for the state.

Q: What does a collector do if someone doesn't pay a toll?

A: They have an intercom, and they'll contact a sergeant. They'll advise that they've had a toll evader and give a description of the vehicle. It doesn't happen very often.

Q: Is there one incident in your 30 years that stands out in your mind? Has anyone ever stopped in the middle of the bridge, for instance?

A: Yes. They're afraid to cross the bridge, and all of a sudden they panic. One day this driver backed down around the curve of the bridge to get off of it because they were afraid to go forward. . . .

Once, a gentleman in a tractor- trailer had an accident and hit the bridge rail. The cab ripped loose from the chassis, went over the rail and was hanging by the brake line with him still in the cab. The guy was hollering to get out of there.

Q: Is there a happy ending?

A: Yes, we got chains and secured it and got a crane out and lifted it over. By luck he wasn't seriously injured.

Q: Do you expect any tie-ups this Fourth of July weekend?

A. Not unless there's some emergency -- an accident or breakdown.

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