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Bridging a Tight Spot

Traffic flows freely over the new Fishing Creek Bridge

The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Fishing Creek Bridge in Chesapeake Beach.
     The troubles a new bridge can pose are nothing new to Chesapeake Beach. In the 1950s, the newly built Chesapeake Bay Bridge lured visitors away from the historic resort to Ocean City. The move to the suddenly accessible Eastern Shore cost the town many of its tourism dollars.
     Half a century later, Chesapeake Beach recreated itself as a popular resort with a boardwalk, water park, spa hotel, restaurants and marinas
      Then came a second bridge crisis. 
      The bridge that linked Chesapeake Beach to the north — and joined the twin towns of Chesapeake and North Beach — was worn out. Routing around its span on Fishing Creek takes about 25 minutes.
      Built in 1940, the original Rt. 261 bridge had survived 37 years beyond standard bridge life. It was “structurally safe but showed signs of deterioration,” according to Hilary Gonzales, community liaison with the State Highway Administration. But the Hogan Administration’s Investment in Highways and Bridges identified it as one of 69 Maryland bridges needing help.
      Thus began almost five years of construction smack in the center of town. 
A Construction Marvel
       With few options other than to endure construction, the highway administration and town worked together to lessen the inconvenience.
      The two-lane span is a tight fit, abutted on all sides by water, roadway and bustling business and community spaces. 
      “There was very little real estate for either materials or machines,” said SHA project engineer Mike Philip.
      With little space for construction staging, the parking lot of the adjacent Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa was leased as a materials depot and became construction central.
      To create a dry workspace, a cofferdam was built to lock up water to be pumped out.
      Construction began with underground tunnels for the conduit that carries the power lines so the old aboveground bracing could be removed and lines hidden, improving the viewscape. 
      The work was carried out safely, but not always quietly.
      Within the safety and security of the cofferdam, pile drivers went to work. It takes hundreds of blows of a powerful diesel hammer to force each pile into the foundation of soil or sand. The sound of the massive hammer hitting a nearly indestructible steel pile produces a gonging sound that echoes for miles.
       Townspeople heard it. Tourists heard it. “I heard it all day and then heard it in my sleep,” Philip said. 
      So traffic could flow, both lanes of the old bridge remained open during most of the construction. Just west of the old bridge, new lanes were erected and opened one by one.
      “We spent approximately a year on each side,” Philip said. When one lane was closed, flaggers guided travelers — but only between 9am and 3pm, weekdays. “Flaggers didn’t work on weekends because tourism is very important to the town,” Gonzales said. 
       “Construction went smoothly,” said Chesapeake Beach Mayor Pat Mahoney. “Backups were at a minimum; this was a piece of cake.”
A New Bridge at Last
      “Fishing Creek is an economic engine,” Mahoney said as the ribbon opening the bridge was finally cut. “It’s home to the largest charter boat fleet in Maryland and the best crab house in the state. People need to get across to have fun and spend money.”
       The new bridge — which cost $27.9 million — is 84 feet long and 61 feet nine inches wide. It’s 32 feet shorter than the old 116-foot-six-inch bridge but nearly doubles the old bridge’s previous width of 35 and one half feet. The new wider bridge features sidewalks, bicycle-friendly shoulders and an observation area. It is also four feet higher to provide more clearance for marine vessels.
       The old bridge is gone but not forgotten, its parts popping up in new places. “The original bridge’s historical railing was salvaged and given to the town,” said design manager Jeff Robert. One piece is displayed in the parking lot of town hall.
      The observation area on the new bridge also features signage giving the history of the old bridge.