(Aug. 1, 2014) Following what was described as a “MacGyver” –esque repair, the Route 50 drawbridge is expected to function normally for next week’s White Marlin Open, after a five-hour mechanical malfunction this past Saturday created the worst traffic snarl Ocean City has likely ever seen.
The articulating bridge became stuck in the “up” position during its scheduled opening just before 3 p.m. on July 26, and was only able to be lowered to allow traffic back through shortly before 8 p.m.
Subsequent backups on Route 90 and Delaware Route 54 – the only other two east-west ways into the resort – were said to be up to 12 miles long Saturday afternoon.
While no major injuries were reported, the Town of Ocean City had to make a number of close judgment calls through the incident, which resulted in more than a few irate visitors.
Further, although it will not affect vehicle traffic, the bridge will need to undergo additional repairs that will keep it in the closed position while work is being done, likely an overnight job, according to the State Highway Administration.
“When we come back in, we’ll replace all four of the main mounts, not just the one we patched on Saturday,” said SHA spokesman Dave Buck. “What we have left to do should really have a minimal impact. Our fix is perfectly good, and it could be fine for months.”
Essentially, Buck said, the motors which raise and lower the two leaves of the bridge are each connected to the structure itself at two points – a gear on the north side, and another on the south side, by which the motors’ drive shafts actually turn the bridge up and down.
On Saturday, rust and years of wear caused the southwest mounting to break, and the bridge to twist out of alignment. When the bridge-tender tried to close the bridge, Buck said, a five-foot gap was still visibly present between the leaves, even though the electronic monitoring system was indicating that all the mechanicals were in the “closed” position.
After raising the bridge back up, inspectors were able to clean out the broken material and bypass the limit switches controlling the hundreds of moving parts inside the span.
“They went in and cleaned out what was broken, and were able to hand-crank it back down by just before 8 p.m.,” Buck said.
The bridge was manually opened and closed again at 10 p.m. to allow boats to get on the right side of the bridge.By that time, additional crews from Covington – the state’s bridge maintenance contractor – had arrived to begin re-welding the broken mount.
“It’s not like a broken part where you can just bolt a new one on,” Buck said. “We kind of had to ‘MacGyver’ it back together with the material that was there.”
Normal operations resumed around noon on Sunday.
But within an hour of the malfunction on Saturday, the resort was already reaching a traffic boiling point.
Route 50 eastbound had backed up roughly three miles to 589, where motorists began turning off to go through Ocean Pines to Route 90. Within another few hours, Route 90 was backed up over 12 miles, Buck said.
In town, southbound traffic on Coastal Highway was completely stopped for roughly an hour until the Ocean City Police Department began forcing motorists to turn onto North Division Street and head back uptown, allowing traffic to flow for those who were going downtown but not over the bridge.
Further, a spell of rain at the time of the malfunction caused a mass exodus of visitors from the Boardwalk and downtown beaches. With Route 50 inaccessible, beachgoers were all forced up to Route 90 or Route 54 at the Delaware line, making northbound Coastal Highway as bad or worse than the other direction.
Additionally, local businesses noted that the 3 to 4 p.m. time span is typically a shift change for bars and restaurants, causing major staffing issues.
“It definitely created an employee issue, because employees couldn’t get into work, and those that were already there had no choice but to work doubles,” said Susan Jones, Executive Director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.
Some establishments reported increased business, while others took a major hit, depending on how traffic-dependent they were.
“I would venture to say it definitely caused a lot of reservations to not be filled,” Jones said. “But there really aren’t a whole lot of places that take them to begin with.”
Roughly an hour after the closure, City Hall issued notices on Facebook and Twitter advising visitors that the closure would last some time.
“Social media is probably the most instantaneous thing we have,” said city Communications Manager Jessica Waters. The town also put a repeating notice on its AM and both FM radio stations, as well as on the marquee at the convention center. The SHA’s electronic boards on Route 50 also displayed a notice.
Naturally, the city has received some criticism that the notification was not fast enough, or that it did not use all the available outlets.
Specifically, social media messages appeared only on the town’s government news and public safety pages, and not on the “Official Ocean City” page, which is geared toward tourism promotions.
“Those are generally people that are coming to the page to plan a vacation here,” Waters said. “They’re very fun, very lighthearted posts.”
“If we were evacuating Ocean City, and we were telling people not to come, I would put it on that page,” Waters said. “But we lean toward the public safety pages for traffic issues that are not quite that level of emergency.”
The city also has a text alert system, sending emergency messages to subscribers’ phones, but use of this again runs the risk of crying wolf.
“This was definitely a major inconvenience but I don’t know that I would qualify it as that level of emergency,” Waters said. “I wish there was a surefire way to reach every single person, but I think most people who needed the information got it.”
Fortunately, the Ocean City Fire Department fielded only 11 medical calls during the time of the closure, and only five of those required transport to the hospital. In all cases, Waters said, the ambulances were able to make the trip without problematic delays.
If more urgent cases had arisen, airlift plans with the Maryland State Police were in place. The 10th Street Medical Center can also be used to treatment in severe cases, Waters noted.
The city’s Emergency Services Director, Joe Theobald, was the contact person for the town throughout the closure. Theobald gave a brief presentation Tuesday to City Council about the incident, and will be doing a comprehensive de-briefing later on.
“Every department had a plan in place to continue operating overnight, if necessary,” Theobald said.
The SHA plans to come back within the next few weeks to cut out all four joints and weld in new, un-corroded material, Buck said. But the current fix, for the time being, should not cause any further complications.
“There should be no relationship with that and causing any other problems,” Buck said.
The SHA inspects the bridge and lubricates the gears every month – in fact, Theobald noted, they had just done so the day before the failure.
Despite public concern via social media that the bridge should be replaced outright, Buck said the mechanical breakage has nothing to do with the stability of the span itself.
“This has nothing to do with the structural integrity of the bridge,” he said. “It’s in line to be replaced, but it’s not imminent.”
In fact, it appears that the town would still prefer that the SHA embark on the dualization of Route 90 before it replaces the Route 50 Bridge. Having a four-lane road in the middle of town would increase the traffic capacity exponentially, and, in Saturday’s case, would’ve cut down wait times considerably for those making the detour.
“This is just another example of how we just need more capacity at critical times to get people in and out of Ocean City,” said Councilman Dennis Dare.
Further, the Route 90 project needs only funding – the state already has the right-of-way needed to widen the road. At Route 50, a number of different proposals have been pitched over the years as to where the state could buy land for a new span, but nothing has come through.
“The right-of-way [on Route 90] is there, it’s just a matter of funding the design and starting down the road to get it done, hopefully in the not too distant future,” Dare said.