Lane closures planned for Chester River Bridge
CHESTERTOWN — The State Highway Administration plans to close one lane of the Chester River bridge for five weeks, starting Monday, April 18 to replace steel stringers under the draw portion of the span.
The 24-hours-a-day closures would reduce traffic to a single lane for three to five days each week, depending on how long each of the five stringers takes to replace.
The news, delivered at the Kent County commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, April 5, stunned local officials and audience members. It was the first time the SHA mentioned it had to close the bridge before July, when painting is scheduled to begin. The painting work will close the bridge to all traffic for up to four weeks beginning July 18.
Robert Rager, an SHA community liaison official, said travelers crossing the bridge should expect backups, and should plan alternate routes where practical. He predicted “significant queueing” on both sides of the bridge due to the single-lane access. He said the SHA is looking for ways to minimize flagging queues.
Backups on Maple Avenue, which leads to the bridge from the Chestertown side, could impede traf- fic on several main streets feeding into the street. An estimated 15,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, Rager said after the meeting.
Flaggers will direct traffic and allow emergency personnel to cross without delay when needed, Rager said. The SHA is working with emergency services on both sides of the bridge to provide access for ambulances, fire and police vehicles as needed, he said.
Rager said he was surprised the commissioners weren’t informed. He said SHA officials working with the Chester River Bridge Closing Task Force were supposed to have told the task force the plans to close the bridge for the steel work.
Commissioner Bill Short, who is a member of the task force, said this was the first he heard of significant closings due to preparatory work. The task force, comprising officials from Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, SHA engineers, local business owners, representatives of the hospital, Washington College, emergency services, law enforcement and residents from both sides of the river, has been meeting since January 2015.
County Administrator Shelley Herman said the county knew the SHA would be doing preparatory work on the bridge, but was not told specifics of the schedule or of the need for extended lane closures.
“I sat in a meeting with (Comptroller Peter Franchot) and defended you guys,” Short said. He said the SHA “made an ass of me” with its last-minute notification of the April bridge closures.
Franchot questioned the schedule for closing the bridge for painting after a local restaurateur wrote saying it would cost him customers during peak tourist season.
Short asked Herman to read aloud a letter he sent to state Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, and members of the District 36 delegation Monday, April 4 outlining the task force’s efforts to inform the public of the July closure and to minimize disruption of local businesses. The letter included minutes of the task force’s meetings.
The letter concluded, “It is my belief we need to proceed as planned. The County and the State Highway Administration worked collaboratively with the community and there should not be a state override of the process.”
Short said he would now have to “reach out and apologize” to Franchot and the delegation. “This isn’t over yet,” he said.
Commission President William Pickrum said the commissioners have made efforts to prepare the community for the full closure in July. He described the news of the April closings as “an unpleasant surprise.” He said the last-minute notification was bad public relations by the SHA.
Audience members reacted angrily, shouting out objections and interrupting Rager several times. One woman walked out saying she better leave before she got thrown out for disrupting the meeting.
Rager said the SHA could have informed the county about the closings sooner, but it didn’t know the final schedule until now. He said the time was chosen to avoid conflicts with Washington College commencement, scheduled for Saturday, May 21.
The next meeting of the bridge task force is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, April 15 in the county commissioners hearing room at 400 High St., Chestertown.
The drawspan of the Chester River Bridge which is scheduled to undergo a major overhaul this summer. Preliminary work will close one lane of the bridge for five weeks beginning April 18, according to the State Highway Administration. The bridge will be completely closed for up to four weeks beginning in July.