By JASON BABCOCK
No vehicle has ever broken through the Jersey wall barriers and left the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge between St. Mary’s and Calvert counties.
However, from the top of the bridge it is a long way down.
The bridge over the Patuxent River is the third-highest in Maryland state government’s inventory, with 140 feet of clearance below its bridge deck at its highest point.
But an accident similar to one last month on the Chesapeake Bay bridge that sent a car over a Jersey wall and plummeting into the water is unlikely on the Johnson bridge, John Groeger, deputy director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation, said this week.
“It would be much more difficult on that bridge because it’s narrower. It’s harder to get that angle” to break through a barrier on the Thomas Johnson bridge, he said.
The William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge (the Chesapeake Bay bridge) is the tallest state bridge in Maryland, towering up to 186 feet above the water, and the Francis Scott Key Bridge has 185 feet of clearance, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.
On July 19, a tractor trailer crashed into a vehicle driven by Morgan Lake, 22, of Dunkirk on the eastbound span of the Chesapeake Bay bridge about one-quarter mile from the western shore. The collision pushed Lake’s vehicle up onto the Jersey wall barrier. It teetered over and fell into the water 35 feet below. She managed to escape the submerged vehicle and swim to safety.
The family’s legal counsel has advised them not to grant any more interviews about the incident, Melani Lake, Morgan Lake’s mother said. But since the accident, her daughter has not crossed any bridges. “There is a fear,” she said.
It was the second time a vehicle went over the Bay bridge in its history. A tractor trailer crashed through a barrier on Aug. 10, 2008, killing its driver. The first span of the Bay bridge opened in 1952.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the bridge’s safety since the July 19 accident.
The Thomas Johnson bridge, opened in 1977, uses the same Jersey wall barriers as the eastbound Bay bridge.
“We’ve had those questions before,” about the safety of the barrier walls, said David Buck, media relations manager for the Maryland State Highway Administration, which maintains the Thomas Johnson bridge. The Maryland Transportation Authority maintains the Chesapeake Bay span, which is a toll bridge.
The barriers are uniformly designed and crash tested to keep small vehicles and large trucks on a bridge “while redirecting them back onto the roadway upright and with minimum damage to vehicle and barrier,” Buck said.
There are federal standards for all traffic control devices. “Nothing on our systems is going to be below national standards,” he said.
“The history speaks for itself on” the Thomas Johnson bridge, he said.
The barriers are 36 inches high on the span, which is 7,355 feet long (about a mile and half). The eastbound span of the Bay bridge, with the same barriers at the same height, is 4 miles across, according to the two state agencies.
“Jersey barriers get hit and do their jobs all the time” without being reported, Buck said, so it’s hard to say how many lives they’ve saved.
Courtney Ross, a civil servant at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, makes the 35-mile, one-way commute across the Johnson bridge to Huntingtown. She said she has seen the black rubber marks on the Jersey walls. “You can see where people have run into them,” she said. She is not afraid of driving over the bridge, but the traffic congestion can extend her commute from 40 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, if not longer.
It can be a scenic drive on nice days at the top of the bridge. “It’s one of the tallest places I can get to every day,” she said. But when the weather is bad, “those people who are afraid of the bridge go 10 mph over it.” She said she hopes to be able to move to the St. Mary’s County side of the river to avoid the bridge traffic.
“On windy days it can be scary,” said Gracie Brady, a St. Mary’s County government employee who commutes over the bridge. “Some people don’t like it on certain days.”
With only two lanes and no shoulders along the bridge span, Ross said, “your margin of error is very slim before things get very complicated and it derails everybody’s commute. I’ve seen cars break down on the bridge and sadly we have jumpers.”
Since the Thomas Johnson bridge opened in December 1977, 14 people have leapt to their death, while four survived.
The bridge was designed in the early 1970s to handle 1,400 vehicles each day, but today carries an average of 33,000 vehicles a day, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.
State plans in 1967 had the bridge at 80 feet tall, but the Navy requested the height of 140 feet to allow its vessels to pass underneath to Point Patience, the deep port on the Patuxent River.
Designs for a new replacement span have its height between 90 and 105 feet. The state has committed $20 million for the design and engineering of a new bridge, after funding a $6.2 million planning study.
The state’s preferred alternative for a new bridge span places it from 25 to 75 feet south of the existing bridge, according to the Maryland SHA, which could displace at least three properties at Town Point.
The new bridge would have two lanes in each direction, a 4-foot wide inside shoulder each direction and 10-foot outside shoulders for disabled vehicles, plus a 10-foot hiker/biker lane, separated from the shoulder by a barrier. “That’s a design detail and they’ll probably get into that into design [work]. That’s probably the time they’ll make those kind of those decisions,” Groeger said.