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What's Up Magazine

Down To A Science

Jul 07, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Frederick Schultz

Whether you’re a daily commuter or a visitor to the ocean beaches to the east or the metropolises to the west, the only direct way to get there from here and back is to cross the Chesapeake Bay on one of its two spans. To users of this engineering marvel—of which construction began in the late 1940s—it’s either a highlight of the trip or a necessary evil. We sat down recently for a wide-ranging discussion with Bay Bridge Facility Administrator Richard Jaramillo, Construction Manager Larry Hughes, and Maintenance Supervisor James Turner to get their take on what makes the bridge tick. 

What’s Up?: What is the biggest challenge facing you as keepers of the bridge?

Jaramillo: Lately, it’s been weather, which impacts our ability to run
two-way operations that eliminate traffic backups eastbound.

What are your greatest fears? What if a hurricane came straight up the Bay? What would happen in the case of a terrorist attack?

Jaramillo: My responsibility is safety and security of the bridge, but most important, is the staff and the users of the bridge. We work very closely with our construction people and our police to ensure that safety and security measures are adhered to every day. That includes everything from terrorist attacks to weather to any other potential unforeseen event.

What is it like climbing those cables to the top of the bridge? Do you have to talk yourself into doing it?

Hughes: I oversee many of the construction projects here on the Bay Bridge, so no, I don’t have to talk myself into it. I don’t have a fear of heights, so it’s nothing I really put a lot of thought into. I need to go where the work is. The conditions up there are a real mix. If it’s 40 degrees on the ground, it’s probably 30 degrees up there. If the wind is blowing 10 mph on the ground, it’s probably 20 to 30 mph up there. It depends. You may have mist, rain, and fog at the top of a tower that you don’t have on the deck. But not always. Sometimes, the weather is exactly the same. It’s a glorious place to work because for me, it’s kind of close to the heavens. It’s a different feel. You don’t have the world buzzing at you. 

Turner: It’s peaceful. 

Hughes: Yes, it is very peaceful. You get a different perspective on Annapolis. You can see Baltimore City, the Key Bridge, the Eastern Shore. You can see all the ships coming through the channel. It’s an amazing view that most people don’t get to see. From up there, you feel the bridge sway. You feel it move. You feel like you’re experiencing the craftsmanship that those men used when they put the bridge together. It’s a great experience, and it’s a great place to work. Dealing with weather and other factors makes it difficult, but that’s all part of it. You get to be in a place where you know you’re working up high. You know there are some extremes to face. When it’s cold and you get a little bit of mist in your face, it fills you up. It plays the part.

What has to happen for you to go to the top?

Hughes: My reasons are all construction-based. Jamie [Turner] would have different reasons to go up. We’re actually building a cable project right now that causes us to go to the top to scout out locations for where we’re going to hang our new steel. As far as having spur-of-the-moment causes to go up there, that’s more along Jamie’s line.

Turner: We check on navigational beacons up there for both ships and aircraft. Sometimes, they burn out and need to be repaired. Communication antennas sometimes come loose. We have to inspect them and notify the right people to fix them. We’re also responsible for the safety railing.

How do you react to the characterization that this is one of the scariest bridges in the world?

Turner: Personally, I’d say one reason is the length. It’s such a long distance over the water. At any given moment, you could have an accident or emergency. People today don’t have
the nerve they did in years past. Every little thing kind of freaks them out. 

Hughes: I actually don’t have any idea why people think it’s scary. I’ve been working on this facility for 10 years. I’m originally from Florida, and I didn’t see any bridges there that are any different from what we have here. I think two factors are at play that make some people scared. One is that you can see the water and the other bridge, from either bridge. That makes a few people skittish. Another is that we don’t really have pull-off areas on our facility. So if there’s any kind of accident or backup, you have nowhere to pull off and wait for emergency services. I’ve been all over these bridges, and there’s not a thing that scares me. We went through Hurricane Sandy, and I was on the bridge when it came through at 90 miles an hour. Even then, I felt completely safe. It’s a very well-built structure. Frankly, the biggest scare factor for me would be other drivers. 

Turner: The people who are saying it’s the scariest bridge are making it that way, I believe.

Jaramillo: It’s centered around the length, the height, and the fact there
is no shoulder. I think the beauty of being able to see everything determines some of the scary factor. You can literally see everything around you, including the movement of the water, the movement of the ships. It’s almost as though you’re standing on a rope
and able to see everything around you. That may frighten some people. But I can assure you that we have preventive maintenance and inspections on a regular basis. Our staff are up there daily. I know it’s called one of the scariest bridges, but I would probably label it as one of the safest. Having no shoulders creates its own issues, but I think we’ve made it work extremely well.

How do you feel about the prospects of a third span being constructed?

Jaramillo: We’ve been at various meetings in regard to this, and I think
a lot of individuals are very interested in having it. It could provide relief for the consistent increase in traffic. But it does present its own challenges. There are arteries and infrastructure leading to and past the existing bridges, which restrict the ability to move that traffic. Everybody is interested in it, but nobody wants it in their area. 

Hughes: The study is a little over a year in right now; Tier One is going to be a five-year study. And then a Tier Two NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] study is required when any major highway is being built. In this instance, they’re looking at the entire Chesapeake Bay in Maryland for a crossing. And they’re looking at some of the issues that Richard brought up, whether it connects with a major highway, other uses of transportation: tunnels, ferries.

Jaramillo: NEPA really is at a high level, with an obvious environmental emphasis. It’s looking at corridor locations and financial feasibility. Once you get into the next phase, it’s more of a “boots-on-the-ground” kind of inspection. They’re done for various required reasons—for effects on the environment and whether we have done our due diligence.

Is there any possibility of expanding or widening the present structures?

Jaramillo: Everything is under consideration.

Hughes: There is a “no-build option” for all the NEPA studies, which essentially means that we don’t build a third span, that we just keep the Bay Bridge as it is. Improvements to the existing spans are something being considered. It’s still a bit early in the process to determine what actually will be done. 

What maintenance projects are underway now that people would not know about?

Hughes: Maintaining a structure like this, especially over salt water, takes constant planning. Take painting, for example. You’ve got to take care of the roadway, the understructure, the piers, the actual painting. That’s just maintenance to keep it functional. Something we’ve been working on that people probably see but don’t fully understand is the actual suspended sections of the main spans on each bridge. A few years ago, we were the first in the United States to put together a dehumidification system for our main cables. Various studies on bridges around the world have found that there is probably no perfect way to build a cable system, especially when you consider weather elements that affect steel. Steel structure rusts over time. So you’ve got to clean it, paint it, and maintain it.

So salt exacerbates that?

Turner: Moisture is the real issue.

Hughes: Yes, moisture. What we’ve implemented is a dehumidification system for both bridges. Essentially what we did was unwrapped the cables and re-wrapped them with a brand-new waterproof and air-tight wrap. Then we injected super-dried air into injection sleeves on the cables. This basically gives them a longer lifespan. That’s a maintenance operation that we do daily, and we have a monitoring system that tells us the active humidity levels in those cables. We can measure how much water was taken out over time and are able to gauge a lifespan of those cable systems. To my knowledge, it had only been done twice, once in Asia and another in the United Kingdom. I would say most people don’t know that is being done.

Turner: Most of this is done overnight, during lane and bridge-span closures and during the day over off-peak hours. Scheduling is just one of the challenges. There’s a finite amount of time when we can actually get out and do the work.

Hughes: Construction and maintenance are two different operations, but they often intermingle. If an issue is too far gone for maintenance, construction will develop a project, and we’ll do a permanent repair. In most cases, we’re then able to turn that over to maintenance for them to handle. 

What role do private contractors play?

Hughes: It’s a mix. Richard’s department and Jamie’s department will look at certain things on the bridge that need to be maintained or repaired, and they determine the staff and manpower required to handle that type of project. Basically, after determining whatever they need, we would have engineers come in and draw up a contract and put it out to bid. A private contractor would then get to bid on the job.

Turner: Our maintenance staff is responsible for buildings and grounds. Sometimes, we’ll assist on engineering projects with whatever they need. We do everything from small road repairs, grass cutting, building repairs, traffic management. We do pretty much everything. 

Jaramillo: That includes the line striping, the cat eyes [road-surface reflectors], and all other devices you see out there that have a safety purpose. It’s important that they’re staying on top of all it. 

Is there something about this span that most people don’t know about but perhaps should?

 Jaramillo: Many people don’t understand the amount of pride built into the management and oversight of this facility. Every division of the Bay Bridge has a sense of pride in what they do. There’s a lot of close communication and coordination that occurs. Other things that individuals may not understand is that safety and security are absolutely paramount. 

This is a safe structure.

Hughes: There are times when a traffic accident inconveniences people, and there are other times when construction does the same for the betterment of the bridge. I would hope people understand that the whole purpose of what we do is to take care of the traveling public. That’s why we are here. There is no greater purpose for us than that.

Turner: I think people really do not understand the level of the traffic management here. We are doing everything possible to move as many cars as possible. It doesn’t always seem that way, but people don’t take into consideration their own safety and the logistics of it all. We have it down to a science.