Storms cause rise in Bay Bridge closures [Capital (Annapolis, MD)]
(Capital (Annapolis, MD) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) More than 5,800 travelers receive email alerts when restrictions are placed on Bay Bridge traffic. To sign up for the alerts and view the latest bridge conditions, visit www.baybridge.com.
Drivers also can call 1-877-BAY-SPAN (229-7726) for traffic and weather conditions.
"It was a very windy year. The weather's been more violent."
-- Gordon Garrettson, Bay Bridge facility administrator.
Storm winds swelled all morning. By afternoon, they whipped through softball-sized sensors nearly 200 feet above the roiling Chesapeake Bay.
Every second, a measurement is taken. The readings pulse along cables running the length of the Bay Bridge, then flicker on a computer monitor before Gordon Garrettson.
Garrettson studied this monitor 20 hours on Wednesday.
That day, a team of maintenance workers, police officers and engineers waited on standby. They can close the bridge within minutes of Garrettson's order.
It was a familiar scene for the Bay Bridge facility administrator. Garrettson and his team closed the bridge six times since January 2012.
The bridge closed once in 2011.
Wind gusts exceeded 39 mph Wednesday when restrictions were placed to block empty tractor-trailers from crossing.
After the restriction, a tractor-trailer was blown on its side while driving on the westbound span. Police are investigating the incident. It's not clear if the truck was loaded.
About a half-hour after the crash, the bridge closed to drivers on both spans. This happens when winds exceed 55 mph for 10 minutes. Drivers were stranded for hours until the bridge reopened.
"Some people were inconvenienced," Garrettson said. "But at the end of the day, we had no structural damage, no injuries and no fatalities. As far as we're concerned - that's a win."
The bridge closed once in both 2007 and 2003, according to Ray Feldmann, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.
But violent storms, such as hurricanes and derechos, caused additional closures last year.
"It was a very windy year," Garrettson said. "The weather's been more violent."
The computer system graphs wind speed every minute. It was installed in July and shows if gusts are increasing or slowing. Before the system, Garrettson plotted points on paper.
Two sensors are stationed near the bridge deck, one on each span. Here winds can be twice as strong as on land.
Sometimes, Garrettson is alerted overnight to dangerous winds. A pager system notifies his team and during storms he drives from his Pasadena home to the command center near the western shore toll plaza.
While home, he's mindful of the flag flapping across the street. He has worked about five years as the Bay Bridge administrator and learned to spot signs of approaching storms.
"You get to the point where the flags tell you a great deal," he said.
When a storm arrives, Garrettson and his team work 12-hour shifts. About 80 people watch wind speeds, ready to shift traffic lanes and restrict trucks.
Their policy leaves little guesswork. Drivers are warned when wind speeds reach 30-39 mph. Empty tractor-trailers are restricted at 40-49 mph. Tractor-trailers must weigh at least 64,000 pounds to cross when winds exceed 50 mph.
At 55 mph, the bridge is closed.
They don't want to limit traffic, Garrettson said. But they're tasked with safeguarding more than 14.5 million drivers who cross each year.
Garrettson explained the system Friday, while seated before the computer monitors and shifting graphs. A restriction was in place blocking empty tractor-trailers from crossing and the trucks were parked along exit ramps.
Some drivers napped. Others walked for lunch. Benjamin Slashchev passed the time listening to the radio.
He was driving to pickup 30,000 pounds of paint in Dover, Del.
"I'm not in a hurry. I called the boss, he just told me to wait," said the Virginia driver.
He considered the wind beating against the trailer.
"Forty miles per hour, I think it's no problem. I think it's not enough to flip."
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