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Bay Bridge could face 'perfect storm' scenario

Sun photo/Michael Dresser

Not to be too alarmist, but if you're heading for Ocean City, the Delaware beaches or the Eastern Shore this holiday weekend there are compelling reasons to avoid the Bay Bridge at Friday's peak evening traffic.

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First, traffic is expected to be heavy. AAA Mid-Atlantic is projecting a "robust" travel weekend this Memorial Day, with an expected 6.8 percent increase in the number of Marylanders traveling by automobile.

Second, bookings are up in Ocean City, where city officials are expecting brisk business.

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Next, the weather Saturday through Monday is expected to be lovely -- likely enticing spur-of-the-moment visitors who want to grab 2-3 days of sun.

But Friday night could be miserable, with thunderstorms by day followed by showers at night, according to the National Weather Service. And that's bad news for anyone crossing the Bay Bridge.

Here's the problem: Normally, on a Friday afternoon and evening in vacation season, the Maryland Transportation Authority will turn over an extra lane to eastbound travelers to relieve congestion. It does this by opening the westbound span to two-way traffic, using one of the three lanes for eastbound vehicles.

But not in heavy rain or wind, according to authority spokeswoman Kelly Melhem. The reason: safety.

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"If there is any chance of severe weather, that would prevent us from going into two-way operations," Melhem said.

Were that to happen, a heavy volume of eastbound vacation-goers could be joining the normal contingent of Eastern Shore commuters to converge on the two eastbound lanes of the original bridge at about the same time.  It doesn't take a traffic engineer to figure out what that means.

So if you would avoid one of the Bay Bridge's epic backups, you might want to look for an alternate strategy.  The authority recommends traveling before noon Friday -- a great idea if you can get off work. Leaving in early afternoon could avoid the worst of the mess, though holiday travel conditions tend to get heavy by midafternoon on getaway day. Alternately, the authority suggests that you can avoid the worst by getting on the road after 10 p.m.

The authority has one strategy it could trot out if conditions get too bad Friday night. Melhem said that on rare occasions it will cut westbound travel down to one lane and close the center lane of the westbound span as a buffer between it and the third westbound lane. But she said the authority will only employ that after westbound traffic has dropped to volumes where it won't back up onto Kent Island -- probably after 8 p.m. She said that strategy would not be employed if the rain is heavy.

Leaving Thursday night would normally be a good option, but the weather service is predicting thunderstorms that evening. The authority is recommending traveling that day before 2 p.m.

So if none of the recommended Bay Bridge options are appealing, Baltimore-area residents might want to consider bypassing the bridge and taking the northern route around Elkton. (Washingtonians and Annapolitans are pretty much stuck with the bridge.)

The Getting There route to the beaches:  Interstate 95 to the North East (Md.) exit, exit on Route 272 and keep right toward U.S. 40, take left onto 40 and continue into Delaware, take right on Wrangle Hill Road to Delaware 1 (parts toll)  heading south. From there, the route depends on your destination. (Delaware 1 will get you to the Delaware beaches and U.S. 113 to Ocean City. DE 387 for north O.C. and Fenwick island/MD 90 for central O.C./U.S. 50 for downtown.)

This route avoids possible backups for the Delaware Toll Plaza. No guarantees there won't be congestion on DE 1  for those without E-ZPass, but it's unlikely to be anywhere near as the bridge in bad weather.

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