TILGHMAN — Islanders, emergency medical services providers and Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials put their heads together Friday over what could be done about the long wait time for traffic to cross the Tilghman Island Draw Bridge over Knapps Narrows.
The Tilghman Island Draw Bridge is one of the busiest drawbridges on the East Coast, with more than 40 openings per day during peak season, according to MDOT statistics, and all indications are that it is about to get busier.
Islanders are used to a long wait time, with many considering it to be part of the quiet, out-of-the-way waterfront lifestyle that keeps Tilghman the way it is.
But within the last year, problems have come to the surface that the bridge wait time is inhibiting emergency fire, rescue and medical vehicles from responding as quickly as they could when they need to leave the island and answer calls in the Bay Hundred area.
Officials in fire engines and ambulances leaving the Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Company and emergency medical stations on the island reported to MDOT that their response times have more than doubled within the last year, according to notes taken at a meeting in December 2018.
Peak season is May through September, with an average 1,264 openings per month. Off season is October through April, with 614 openings per month, or about 20 per day.
The bridge frequently opens back-to-back, only remaining closed long enough to clear traffic, then opens again for heavy boat activity traveling the narrows.
A total of 10,620 bridge openings were recorded in 2018.
A bridge tender is available to open the bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The tender will open the bridge if a boat signals with horn blasts, “one long, one short.” Boaters can also reach the bridge tender on VHF radio channel 13 or by phone, 410-886-2588.
For motorists, patience is required as a series of events occurs with each opening of the bridge.
Traffic lights turn red, cars stop, traffic gates lower, then traffic barriers lower.
The bridge leaf slowly opens to full capacity, seagoing vessel or vessels pass through, then the bridge leaf slowly closes, barriers lift, gates lift, and traffic lights turn green.
For one small boat, this takes about five minutes, according to SHA officials timing the process. Opening for one small boat passing through has been deemed a “typical opening.”
But there are also “long openings.” With multiple boats passing through, some openings have lasted as long as half an hour, according to some of those who were in cars waiting.
“One of sort of the wild cards in this and what’s changed is last year the Army Corps dredged Knapps Narrows,” Bob Rager said, who is a community liaison from MDOT.
“And there was an expectation that that was going to increase the number of pleasure boats going through here and that seems to be happening,” he said.
The Army Corps of Engineers dredged Knapps Narrows in spring of 2018, and this year, 2019, will be the first year that MDOT will get complete data on just how much boat traffic has been affected.
“People are finding out they can take their vessels through here and they can save an hour, one-and-a-half hours instead of going around (the island),” Rager said.
Friday’s meeting was a continuation of the December meeting.
The group sat around a large table Friday morning at the Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Company, under a framed picture of the old Knapps Narrows bridge, and other Tilghman Island scenes.
An ongoing theme in the discussion was the old practice of “partial” bridge openings versus the current regulations that the bridge must be fully opened every time.
“Opening the bridge partially used to be done but it’s so much wear and tear on the bridge,” Rager said.
“And it’s against federal law,” said Kate Duncan, an engineer with MDOT.
According to U.S. Coast Guard regulations, “drawbridges must open promptly and fully for the passage of vessels when a request or signal to open is given.”
There was a discussion about whether or not an exception may be granted for that federal regulation.
One man commented that, in his experience, partial bridge openings seemed to be very common on the Intracoastal Waterway.
There was also discussion about whether there should be scheduled bridge openings only during regular times of the day, instead of having the bridge open on demand. That idea did not last for long, and discussion went back to partial bridge openings.
“The bridge tenders were used to doing that,” Rager said. “They just pop the bridge up and pop it down a little bit and the drivers appreciated that. It was a nice gesture but they can’t be doing it if we want to preserve the bridge in the long run.”
Tim Fluharty of Fluharty’s Electric in Tilghman had been called upon in the past to help out with problems when the bridge malfunctioned, and agreed with the officials that the practice of only partially opening the bridge was adding premature wear and tear to the structure.
The current bridge was built in 1990, according to SHA officials.
The previous Tilghman Island draw bridge was moved to St. Michaels as a museum piece and now hangs over cars driving on land, entering the parking lot of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
At the conclusion of the meeting, it had been decided that a system needed to be worked out of alerting the bridge tender that the bridge needed to be available, top priority, for emergency vehicles.
It would involve coordination with emergency dispatchers, EMS providers, firefighters and a host of other people.
MDOT officials decided they needed to monitor the bridge even more closely than they had been, with the collection of more data and the use of surveillance cameras.
Talbot Director of Emergency Services Clay Stamp said that with the increased economic development and traffic on Tilghman, he felt a study needed to be conducted.
Those present at Friday’s meeting included Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B- Talbot; MDOT representatives Kenneth Fender, Kate Duncan, Bob Rager, Robert Garaba, and others; Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Company President Craig Brittingham; Tim Fluharty of Fluharty’s Electric; Doug Fluharty of Bay Hundred Enterprises; bridge manager Ted Harrison; PWEC Director Kelly Phillips Cox; Director of Talbot County Emergency Services Clay Stamp; Talbot 9-1-1 Division Chief Holley Guschke and others.