Two parallel bridges in Maryland, carrying US 50 and US 301, as well as 23 million cars a year, across Chesapeake Bay. The bridges should not be confused with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, further south in Virginia.

Connecting Sandy Point near Annapolis on the Western Shore to Kent Island on the Eastern Shore, a rough Gorgonzola odometer reading reveals that the roadway on top of the bridge is about 4.3 miles from shore to shore. Adding in its approaches, the entire project extends for 7.7 miles. The toll is $2.50 eastbound and free of charge westbound.

It's safe to say that no structure has affected Maryland's economic, political, and social landscape the way the Bay Bridge has. The Bay Bridge certainly strengthened economic ties with the Eastern Shore, but in completely unexpected ways. The sleepy region of cornfields, watermen, duck hunting, and seafood canneries presented in James Michener's novel Chesapeake was completely transformed. Small wonder that many longtime Eastern Shore residents viewed the bridge as a curse, rather than a blessing.

The smaller bayside resorts of Tolchester Beach, Betterton, and Love Point disappeared as demand for the ferry services to those places evaporated. Only Sandy Point remained, transformed into a state park (initially with segregated beaches).

Today, millions of people cross the bridge every summer, heading for the Atlantic resorts of Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach. Trucks use it as a way to avoid traffic snarls around Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. In recent years, Kent Island and other parts of Queen Anne's County have turned into bedroom communities for Washington, Annapolis, and Baltimore.

The annual exodus has turned small towns along the Ocean Highway (Easton, Cambridge, and Salisbury) into small cities. Multi-million-dollar houses have sprouted along the waterfont. Ocean City itself has a year-round population large enough to make it Maryland's second-largest city. Maryland's Mass Transit Administration runs a commuter bus line between Kent Island and Annapolis.

Small boats cluster around the bridge's abutments on summer weekends, drawn by the fish that feed on the ecosystems that have grown around them. While crabs, oysters, and feed corn are still culturally important to the Eastern Shore, Perdue, Holly Farms, and Tyson have made poultry into Maryland's most important agricultural product.

All made possible by the Bay Bridge.

A Chesapeake Bay crossing was originally proposed at the turn of the 20th Century, but two world wars and the Great Depression intervened. Finally, the General Assembly raised revenue bonds to build the bridge and construction began in 1949.

The bridge's designers did not route it directly across the Bay. Instead, they made it extend about a half mile southwest from the western shore, then sweep around to the east for the rest of its length. This allowed it o be more or less perpendicular to the two big channels, as well as follow a stable area of the Bay's bottom.

The bridge is composed of 100 or so sections. Sections at the eastern and western ends are short trestles built low to the water, steel girders laid on concrete pilings much like an ordinary overpass. Higher sections are constructed of steel trusses supported by steel A-frames and Eiffel Tower-like structures. Just east of the bend, the roadway is carried over the main shipping channel by a suspension bridge section, giving 178 feet of vertical clearance between 379-foot tall towers 1600 feet apart. Towards the Eastern Shore, another pair of large spans cross the ancient channel of the Susquehanna River via large continuous trusses.

The first bridge opened in 1952 at a cost of $54 million.

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Soon after the bridge opened, the annual tradition of Bay Bridge backups began. One lane in each direction was not enough to carry all of the traffic, and by the mid-sixties it was clear another bridge had to be built. Crossings were proposed between Millers Island and Tolchester in the upper bay closer to Baltimore, and betwen Lusby and Taylors Island further south. Eventually, however it was decided to build the new bridge parallel to the first.

So it was that in late 1969 and early 1970, two immense concrete structures began to rise out of the water 450 feet north of the original bridge. Watching from my father's boat, my brother and I were fascinated with the things, often drawing our attention away from the task at hand, catching white perch and striped bass. Over the next two years, we watched the towers go up, the trusses being constructed, and eventually, the roadway being poured.

The parallel bridge is three lanes wide and slightly shorter than its neighbor. Its suspension cables are anchored in two 200-foot concrete structures as mentioned above, and the main span's box truss is below the roadbed instead of above:

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Just before the bridge opened, stress cracks were discovered in some of the pilings near the eastern end. The bridge's opening was delayed as hasty repairs were made, and the bridge finally opened in 1973 at a cost of $174 million. Steel bands held back the cracks for 15 years, but the problem pilings now sport polymer sheaths.

When the parallel bridge opened, it was set to carry westbound traffic, and the original bridge eastbound traffic. However, on days of particularly heavy eastbound traffic (such as early summer Fridays) a lane control system allows bridge authorities to route a lane of eastbound traffic onto the new bridge.

In the April, 1975, the annual Bay Bridge Walk was started. One day a year, combined with the Chesapeake Bay Festival at nearby Sandy Point State Park, the eastbound span is closed, and 40,000 to 60,000 people are allowed to walk across the bridge. There is now a triathalon event, the middle section of which involves swimming across the Bay between the two spans.

By the mid-1980's the original bridge needed an overhaul. It was closed in 1986, and over a period of two years, the crumbling road deck and the rusting guard rails were replaced. To my dismay, the submarine bolted to the underside of the Eastern Channel span (for underwater inspection of the bridge's abutments) was removed at the same time. The bridge reopened in 1988, at a cost of $27 million.

Towards the end of the 1990's it became apparent that the bridges would have to be repainted. However, new environmental regulations required that extraordinary measures had to be taken to keep lead paint debris from falling into the Bay. Sections that were being worked on had to be tented to catch dust and paint flakes, and special vacuum and ventilation systems had to be designed. When the eastbound bridge is finished in 2002, the cost will be $74 million, $20 million more than it cost to build the bridge in the first place. The westbound bridge will be repainted between 2002 and 2005 at a cost of $49 million.

The Maryland Transportation Authority has contrived a superlative for the bridges: "The longest continuous over-water metal structure in the world." They're not the longest bridges in the world; they're not the longest suspension bridges in the world. They're assembled from a collection of building techniques; they've had their problems, and some parts are downright ugly if you look closely enough. But the structure has an overall grace that transcends all of that. The sweep of the bridge from the toll plaza on the Western Shore never fails to impress me. The view from the roadway at the top of the bridge is always breathtaking; you can see for dozens of miles in all directions. The Bay Bridge is a state icon, literally and figuratively at the heart of Maryland.

Hundreds of crossings by Yours Truly

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