Before the second Bay Bridge, every weekend was a mess


MOST of the time, traffic to and from the Eastern Shore runs pretty smoothly these summer weekends. Tie-ups at the Bay Bridge are few, and they tend not to last long.

But it wasn't always thus, as drivers on both sides of the Chesapeake know only too painfully. One reason things have improved since the '50s and '60s is the replacement of the drawbridge at Kent Narrows. But the main reason is that there are now bay bridges -- the original and its parallel twin. Construction of the parallel span pretty much ended 21 years of frustration, overheated cars and screaming kids.

The original bridge opened for business at 2:30 p.m. July 30, 1952, with a movable ribbon-cutting ceremony that started at Sandy Point on the Western Shore and ended four hours later at Kent Island. After the B&O; Glee Club had sung "Testament of Freedom" and after the ribbon had been cut and the band had finished playing "Maryland, My Maryland," the 10,000 people who had gathered saw the bridge for what it was: soaring in its majesty, nothing less than the third-longest over-water span in the world. You could not help but love it.

It was a love affair that would be short-lived. The traffic capacity of the single-span bridge at the time was 1,500 vehicles an hour at peak periods. When the planners projected traffic for the full year of operation, they figured 1.2 million. It turned out to be 1.9 million. A new phrase came into being: "Five-mile backup at the Bay Bridge . . ."

From the minute the bridge opened, its volume exceeded every expectation. "We could see it building up, Sunday by Sunday," Ruth Weston, a toll gate collector at the time, observed. "More and more people buying homes, visiting, sightseeing."

It got so bad that many people returned to the old pre-bridge route (if they weren't going by ferry), north to North East and south through Maryland or Delaware. Bay Bridge backups typically built up at around 4 Sunday afternoon, westbound. The average time in line -- it usually extended from Stevensville to Sandy Point -- was 1 1/2 hours. Louis O'Donnell, director of bridges for the state, said, "I can only hope the novelty of crossing the bridge wears off, and traffic will drop."

It never did. "This bridge," an irate letter writer to The Sun held, "was outmoded before the paint was dry. The five-mile traffic jam last Sunday proved it."

In 1963, the planners came up with the "one-way plan," which helped some. On June 3 that year, all eastbound vehicles were halted at the toll booths at the west end of the span. With the eastbound lane cleared, westbound traffic was waved into both lanes. For about 20 minutes cars rolled two abreast at about 50 mph. Almost heaven. But the procedure had to be repeated twice more that same day, and it annoyed eastbound motorists.

By then Gov. Millard Tawes was under pressure to get moving on a second Chesapeake Bay Bridge. He did. A commission studying the problem for him concluded that a parallel bridge would be least expensive to build and maintain. But there were a lot of people who didn't go to the Shore, and there were a lot of people on the Eastern Shore who didn't want to see more visitors from the west. They petitioned and took the matter to Maryland voters. They won, but the parallel span was built anyway. (That's another story.)

On June 21, 1973, Gov. Marvin Mandel officiated at the opening of the parallel bridge. He paid the dollar toll to Harry R. Hughes, transportation secretary, and was the first to officially cross the new three-lane span.

That year, vehicular traffic passing over the bridges exceeded 7.1 million. These days, the average is 18 million, 4,000 an hour.

There are still backups. But the regular five-mile weekend tangle is a thing of the past, and happily so.

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