OPINION: The Troubled Bridge Over Patuxent Waters

By State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

The recent tragic death and injury on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge during two-way traffic emphasizes the danger present every day for users of the Thomas Johnson Bridge.

The thirty-one year old Southern Maryland bridge handles roughly three times the traffic it was built to accommodate. Every day, over the bridge's narrow two lanes, tractor trailers, dump trucks and all manner of huge vehicle roll along with ordinary passenger vehicles.

Twenty years ago, the stress cracks in the support beams caused the bridge to be closed for months by the State Highway Administration (SHA) for repairs.

According to the Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari's comments last May, he sees this bridge closure as a half full glass. He views the bridge's close for structural repairs as proof that the SHA is Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to repairing possible threats "to ensure public safety." I see the glass as half empty. I see the bridge closure for repairs as a warning that this bridge is stressed by the traffic it handles every day. And that traffic can only increase as the years go by, perhaps to four times the traffic the bridge was built to handle.

Secretary Pocari says the issue regarding the Thomas Johnson Bridge "isn't safety." The issue "is capacity." What kind of double talk is that? One of the very things that makes the two lane bridge a safety threat is that it does not have the capacity to handle the traffic that rumbles over it day after day.

Far be it for me to bite the hand that feeds us. However, I feel compelled to point out that we are just beginning the state study to determine the best possible option for either a wider or a new bridge. That study should have begun two decades ago. But it is what it is.

The $4 million in the 2009 capitol budget will enable state highway officials to pick the best option by fall 2009. Project planning could be completed by fall 2011. Design could be completed by fall 2014. Actual construction could be completed by 2017. But knowing that government tends to move at a snail's pace on capital construction, the construction completion date will probably be closer to 2020…and that's if the needed funds will actually be appropriated.

I don't kid myself. And I'm not going to kid you. I believe the Thomas Johnson Bridge is a safety hazard. I'm not a civil or structural engineer, so I cannot declare, with expert knowledge, that the bridge is structurally unsound today. But common sense tells me that a bridge bearing three times the traffic it was built to handle is not a good thing. Certainly, it does nothing to strengthen the bridge or its structural integrity. I have no doubt that the two-way traffic barreling continually over two narrow lanes increases the odds of crashes, injury and death.

In his remarks, Secretary Pocari takes me to task, declaring, "It serves no useful purpose for Senator Dyson to raise unnecessary alarm regarding the condition of a bridge that is structurally sound."

Senator Pocari should know that I am not alone in questioning the bridge's structural soundness and its threat to public safety. He should know I am not "raising unnecessary alarm." No, Secretary Pocari, I have, I am and I will continue to call attention to the danger the bridge poses every step of the way, until all the funds are appropriated and all the construction is completed.

While Secretary Pocari characterizes it as "raising unnecessary alarm," I call it fighting for a safer and adequate transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of the people I serve in St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles Counties. Because he does not hold elected office, maybe Secretary Pocari doesn't know that what I am doing is representing my constituents.

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