Bay Bridge called 'structurally sound but functionally obsolete'

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - All lanes of the Bay Bridge were back open and travel declared safe Tuesday afternoon after workers noticed an unusual and vertical movement of the structure overnight.  As inspectors looked for potential damage, the westbound span of the bridge was closed, trapping travelers in nightmare traffic. 

Whenever extreme precautions like those are taken with the bridge, many wonder if the aging structure is safe for travel.  ABC2 News Investigators dug into documents posted by the Maryland Transportation Authority to find out. 

The agency says the structure is safe, but we discovered that by National Bridge Inspection Standards, the Bay Bridge is considered structurally sound but functionally obsolete.

That information was gleaned from reports related to the Bay Bridge Reconstruction Advisory Group, a sub-group of the MdTA.  According to group minutes, members were told in 2010 about the status of the bridge, which remains in place currently.  It's important to note that by those standards being functionally obsolete does not mean the bridge is unsafe.  Instead MdTA says it is a determination that the structure does not meet current standards.

MdTA spokeswoman Kelly Melhem tells ABC2 traffic capacity is a major issue tied to the bridge's current status, given that on some occasions the Bay Bridge has more cars than its designed capacity. 

In the BBRAG minutes, members were also informed that tens of thousands of bridges across the country are considered functionally obsolete.

One member of BBRAG, Pat Lynch, has expressed repeated concerns about the need for a replacement or additional span of the bridge, which crosses the Chesapeake Bay.  But Gordy Garrettson, Bay Bridge Facility Administrator, informed the group that since a 2005-2006 Task Force explored the idea and found the cost would be billions of dollars, movement on a plan has stalled.

On Tuesday, Executive Secretary Harold Bartlett told ABC2, "Clearly there's a huge financial implication with the construction of a third bay bridge.  And there's also a question of where would that bridge be located.  I'm sure you're familiar with the term N.I.M.B.Y, not in my backyard. And so clearly issues of location of the bridge and expense of constructing the bridge both have huge impacts on whether one would be built."

ABC2 News Investigators found the cost of piece meal repairs to the Bay Bridge have been adding up in the meantime.  For example, BBRAG reports show that the replacement of wrapping on bridge cables from the 1970s, a project in progress this summer, comes with a cost of at least $50-million.

The MdTA says projects like the re-wrapping are done to keep the bridge safe for travelers.  Inspections of the bridge have a similar goal.  MdTA tells us the Bay Bridge was subjected to a required hands-on inspection in June 2011.  A sight inspection done in March turned up no safety problems according to Bartlett.

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