West Virginia backups nearly twice as long at Hancock bridge
If you think it is taking longer to cross the U. S. 522 bridge at Hancock coming from the West Virginia side, you may be right. At least on a Friday evening during peak hours.
A recent trip from I-70 westbound onto U. S. 522 south to Berkeley Springs and back took nearly two hours. The trip included a 15-minute stopover in the West Virginia town.
On Friday afternoon, June 29, at 4 p.m., traffic in Maryland heading toward the bridge had backed up onto both of the I-70 exit ramps, over half a mile from the newly installed southbound traffic signal on the bridge.
To travel the distance from that point to the stop light on the bridge that halts southbound vehicles took drivers 24 minutes. At that signal, Maryland traffic was stopped for approximately one minute, from 4:24 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. to allow motorists northbound from West Virginia to proceed.
But a different story emerges from the return trip.
From Independence and North Washington Streets in Berkeley Springs at 4:50 p.m., traffic proceeded smoothly for 2.8 miles until drivers reached the portable warning light next to the northern water processing tank at U.S. Silica. That lighted sign warns motorists of the construction area on the bridge two miles ahead. At 4:58 p.m., traffic stopped on U.S. 522 and the steady bumper-to-bumper back up moved at less than five miles per hour.
It took drivers from that point until 5:39 p.m. to reach the traffic light on the bridge that stops cars coming from West Virginia. At that point, northbound cars waited from 5:39 to 5:41 to allow southbound traffic from Maryland to proceed. The light for West Virginia drivers turned red again at 5:42 p.m.
The total time spent in the Maryland backup was 24 minutes. In the West Virginia backup, drivers waited 43 minutes.
Installation of the traffic lights used to control use of the single open lane on the southbound side of the bridge was originally planned for April 23. But bridge workers found they were able to work without the signals for a while as they felt they made more progress without them, according to Maryland Highway Administration spokesperson Charles Gischlar.
But when work progressed toward the middle of the bridge span, traffic signals were needed, for the safety of both motorists and workers, so they placed the lights into operation on Wednesday, June 27. Gischlar said that though the signals are now in place, workers are still adjusting the timing.
One improvement over previous work projects on the bridge is that they have shortened the span between the two signals. "We tried to locate the signals closer together on the bridge to keep more traffic on the bridge and not backed up onto the road," Gischlar said
The distance between two signals is now fixed at 700 ft., so drivers have less distance to travel when the signal turns from red to green. In a previous work project about five years ago, the distance between the portable signals was set at 1600 ft., so it took cars longer to cross the work area.
While the signals will be moving to other locations on the bridge during the project, the distance between the two will stay at 700 ft. The span needs to be 700 ft. for safety, said Gischlar, because that length is needed for the work zone.
Gischlar also said workers are monitoring traffic and making adjustments to accommodate both sides, but some spillover is inevitable.
"We will make adjustments in the actual cycle," said Gischlar. "We will have to continue to monitor to see if tweaking is needed to make it change on either side, to make the traffic flow best and safely."
According to Gischlar, a signal technician is on the site Friday through Sunday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. during the peak hours. That person will continue to monitor traffic flow until they are satisfied with the traffic signal's operation.
During the week, contractor representatives, a state highway inspector and a signal person are on site and will let the traffic technician know of any problems so further adjustments can be made.
Normally it takes about a week after a signal is installed to have a good feel for the traffic pattern, said Gischlar.
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According to Gischlar, Friday evenings they normally see more traffic moving southbound on the bridge and on Sunday evening the signal gives more time to northbound traffic.
Though Gischlar did not say traffic is prohibited from backing up onto I-70, he did say they are trying to avoid backups onto I-70 as a safety precaution since it is a major interstate.
Gischlar said his office is doing everything they can to monitor the situation with minimal disruption, but that work on the bridge is "very necessary" in order to maintain it.
"This is a needed project to maintain the integrity of the bridge, to prevent erosion and rust from taking a grip on it," Gischlar said. "If you let it go too long without doing anything, then you have to close sections of the bridge in order to do more extensive work. That's why we're doing it now. It is by no means cosmetic work."
Gischlar stated the recent good weather has been helpful in making progress and that plans are to complete the project by Fall 2008.
Currently at issue for signal operators and technicians is the fact that the July 4 holiday falls in the middle of the week, spreading this year's holiday weekend over a longer time period. Gischlar expects that July 4 traffic will not approach nearly the level that is anticipated for the Thanksgiving weekend when they hope the signal will be gone.
The temporary signals will not be in operation over the winter, said Gischlar. Though workers can reactivate the signals next April 15, the signals must be taken out of use no later than November 15 of this year. One reason Gischlar cited for that hiatus is concern that trucks or any vehicles might encounter freezing on the bridge and would require more stopping distance. Currently, trucks are required to pull off and test their brakes, at least on the West Virginia side of U.S. 522.
"If the weather and scheduling continues to go in our favor, the rest of the project can be done with minimal disruption," he said.
The closest other bridges across the Potomac River are the Rt. 51 bridge at Paw Paw and the Rt. 11 bridge at Williamsport.