By Emily Harris
There was not an empty seat in sight at the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting on Nov. 5. Residents from Chestertown and neighboring communities filled the hearing room for a discussion (SHA) Mark Glass and Greg Holsey about the plan to close the Chester and Sassafras river bridges in 2015. This was led by Commissioners Bill Short and Ronald Fithian, County Administrator Ernie Crofoot, and representatives from the State Highway Administration.
Locals voiced concerns about the bridge closures, anticipating threats to small businesses and safety of the surrounding communities. Many individuals who spoke at the meeting pointed out that members of the police department and the volunteer fire company live south of the Chester River Bridge, limiting their ability to respond to emergency calls when the bridge is closed. If the bridge is not accessible this may increase the distance to reach Chestertown from south of the bridge by 17 miles.
Holsey, the District two engineer for SHA, announced that the proposed closure dates for the Sassafras River Bridge are April 12 – May 3, 2015 and the dates for the closure of the Chester River Bridge are Sept. 13 – Oct. 11, 2015.
Commissioner Short countered with a proposal to form a task force on the issue and consider the idea of replacing the draw span of the bridge with a fixed span. It was suggested that since the bridge only opened about 30 times last year, it is no longer necessary to have a draw bridge on the Chester River.
The bridge closure was first announced by SHA at the commissioners’ meeting on Sept. 23, and the first stakeholders meeting was held on Sept. 26. SHA acknowledged that there may not have been ample notice for local residents who wanted to participate in the discussion to attend the Sept. 26 meeting.
So why does the bridge need to be closed? Both the Chester and Sassafras bridges need to be sandblasted and painted to prevent further rusting and extend their lives for another 20 to 30 years. In order to complete this work the draw bridge would need to remain in an open position for up to four weeks, preventing traffic from crossing the bridge for the duration of the repairs.
Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino said that the announcement was unexpected. “It caught me totally by surprise and I learned about it about two days before that meeting… It wasn’t nearly as much notice as I had hoped they would have given us for something that substantial.”
Representatives from Washington College were present at the meetings organized to discuss the bridge closure according to Chief of Staff Joe Holt. Director of Public Safety Jerry Roderick, Director of Financial Aid Jeani Narcum, Executive Assistant to the VP for Enrollment Stephan Jordan, and Director of Athletics Bryan Matthews accompanied Holt to the meeting on Nov 5. Holt has also been invited to join the task force.
In a letter to Maryland Secretary of Transportation, WC’s Interim President Jay Griswold outlined his concerns on how closing the bridge would impact WC and Chestertown. “Such an action would represent an unwarranted risk to public safety and an undue hardship to a community that enjoys precious few first-responder resources and continues to struggle to recover from the economic downturn that began in 2007-2008.” Griswold went on to emphasize that closing the bridge would prevent prospective students from visiting.
WC’s involvement also included promoting a petition initially distributed by former mayor Margo Bailey and owner of the Blue Heron Café Paul Hanley. Students were encouraged to sign by members of the SGA Executive Board. “As the student government, we do our best to advocate for issues that will affect the student body. This issue would directly or indirectly affect our student body in one way or another at some point in time. Despite being outside of the school’s control, this was an issue that we [town, faculty, staff, and students] could all come together on and work toward a reasonable solution with the State Highway Administration. The more signatures we would be able to get, the better,” said SGA President Connor Harrison. Harrison encouraged students to pay attention to updates in coming weeks and get involved if the SGA asks for help from the student body.
During the Nov. 5 meeting, Bailey acknowledged all of the interested parties present including the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company, the Kent and Queen Anne’s Rescue Squad, the Kent County Chamber of Commerce, the Chestertown Town Council, and Cecil County Rescue Squad. This list underscores the overall concern for the safety of residents in these counties if the bridge were to close for an extended period of time. Hanley echoed the risk to public safety that appeared to be the primary concern of attendees at the meeting. “Fire has no friend and it takes no holiday,” he said.
The Chester River bridge was last repainted during the bridge rehabilitation project of 1989. The draw span of the bridge was removed entirely and replaced with a temporary structure so that traffic could continue to travel across the bridge. Many Chestertown residents remember the 1989 repairs and asked the SHA representatives why the same method could not be used in the 2015 project.
SHA explained that the former bridge rehabilitation project was backed by a large capital fund providing millions of dollars, whereas the current project will draw from a maintenance fund supplying about $400,000. This smaller budget limits the ability of SHA and contractors on the project to remove the draw span entirely and bring in a temporary span.
Replacing the draw bridge with a fixed span would likely push the timeline of the entire project back since the Coast Guard would need to approve of the bridge removal. “I can’t speak for SHA but I would like to think that the timeline would be pushed back at least a little bit and probably until 2016… That was an interesting proposed solution. It makes a lot of sense in that in the long run it would lessen the amount of maintenance that bridge would need because you don’t have any moving parts, and you could do something like this one lane at a time,” Cerino said.
If the permitting process for replacing the draw span of the bridge took two or three years, the SHA representatives present at the Nov. 5 meeting assured residents that they would do what was necessary as far as maintenance until the bridge could be replaced.
Cerino said that this is not the first time an alternative for the current draw bridge structure has been proposed. A bypass has been part of the comprehensive plan of the Kent County Planning Commission for over 20 years, but no progress has been made. “When that bridge was first built the volume coming across that road was a small fraction of what it is now. There’s been development not just in Chestertown and Kingstown and Chester Harbor but Rock Hall, Fairlee, all of that development spills on to that bridge, and in to Queen Anne’s County.”
He anticipates that whether the bridge is closed or the draw span is replaced there will be interested parties that come out of the woodwork to participate in the discussion. “I’m sure there will be because it’s Chestertown and there’s always drama in Chestertown.”