Commuters Losing Patience With Bay Bridge Overhaul

Wed December 03, 2003 - Northeast Edition

ANNAPOLIS, MD (AP) With 50 mi. still to go on her morning commute, Jennifer Foster-Rogers looks through her windshield at 30 minutes worth of traffic between her Audi and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

It’s days like this, approximately two years into a four-year overhaul of the bridge, when Rogers wonders if the peace and quiet of her home on the upper Eastern Shore is worth the hassle.

“My husband and I have made a cognizant decision. I’ve had it,” Rogers said. “We’ve decided it’s time to sell our house and move back to the western shore.”

The tenor of complaints is rising on the Eastern Shore, as residents who trek across the Chesapeake Bay for work every day try to adjust to increasing backups behind bridge lanes that are closed for construction.

Fred Lankford, chief executive officer of Pocomoke City-based Lankford-SYSCO Food Services Inc., sends his salespeople across the bridge to their Anne Arundel County clients almost daily. His workers manage it when their customers want to see them, he said.

“It puts one to two more hours on their workday, along with 20,000 to 40,000 other people,” Lankford said. “I know it’s aggravating.”

Workers crossing the bay try to convince bosses “telecommuting” is a good way to get their jobs done. They tell of missing meetings, punching their time cards late and — in general — suffering a lower quality of life since the bridge construction began.

“Enough is enough, and I think if you talk to people, they’ll say it’s enough,” said Republican State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a resident of Queen Anne’s County.

The U.S. Senate candidate issued a news release recently after writing a sharply worded letter to Gov. Robert Ehrlich that urged him to investigate the Maryland Transportation Authority’s “gross mismanagement” of Bay Bridge traffic.

“We’ve been patient. People have endured a lot and not complained, but when they see things that are in the authority of the MDTA and not being handled, that’s when people get frustrated,” Pipkin said. “I share their pain.”

Ehrlich won’t investigate the management of the bridge, said his spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver. Officials of the state Department of Transportation, which runs MDTA, have assured the governor that “They’re committed to reviewing and implementing measures based on the safety of motorists,” DeLeaver said.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge, officially called the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, was known to cause backups even before the construction began early last year. Mainland Maryland weekend travelers headed to Ocean City have long waited for hours to head east on Fridays and west on Sundays.

The 4.4-mi. span handles approximately 23 million vehicles a year.

But the $60-million project has escalated the backups. As workers replace the concrete and steel decking of the westbound span, lanes are closed. To make up for the lost space, they open a lane for cars to travel west on the eastbound span.

“We know it can be frustrating to be caught in a backup, but sometimes there are things that are absolutely beyond our control,” such as fog, rain, high winds or traffic accidents, said MDTA spokesman Bryon Johnston. “We ask that the public try to plan ahead.”

The problem, commuters said, is that when accidents or bad weather happens, it can take hours for officials to open alternate lanes.

Johnston said alternating traffic lanes when there is a problem is a “delicate balancing act.”

“The problem is, once you start doing that, it takes time. You have to stop traffic, and the more traffic you have backed up, the longer it takes to clear the backup,” said Johnston, who releases regular reports to newspapers and broadcasters to let them know when traffic is stopped or when backups are expected.

Pipkin says he calls MDTA almost daily to find out what is causing traffic delays on the Eastern Shore side of the bridge.

“Every time you call, they say, ’It’s foggy. It’s rainy,’” he said. “That’s been happening on the Eastern Shore since the beginning of time. They need to crank that into their expectations and plan accordingly.”

For Rogers, that may mean giving up the tranquil home she bought in Crumpton in 1988. Her high-stress work as a stockbroker made the home a priority for her 15 years ago.

Now, she says, she may as well live in the Washington suburbs.

“It’s no longer worth the sanctuary of the Eastern Shore,” she said. “It’s a complete forfeit of the tranquility.”