If everything goes right, Opening Day 1992 at Camden Yards' new stadium will be remembered for flapping pennants, a roaring crowd and the park's first Orioles victory. If things go absolutely haywire, it could be recalled as the day the city was socked by a grand-slam traffic jam.
For decades, stadium planners say, cunning fans have beaten paths of least resistance to Memorial Stadium, learning which routes to drive to avoid snarls or what buses to catch. Most have a favorite lot for parking, or know where to hunt for a free space along nearby residential streets.
"People headed to Memorial Stadium have learned to take the backdoor routes," said David W. Chapin, the Department of Transportation official in charge of traffic planning for the stadium.
But when Camden Yards opens, stadium planners fear, those fans could all show up at the front door at the same time.
To prevent chaos that first fateful day -- and thereafter -- almost a dozen city, state and Stadium Authority officials have been busy since September drafting increasingly detailed plans for controlling traffic flow, coordinating parking and plotting public relations strategy to encourage use of mass transit. Over the past several years, more than $59.3 million has been spent on highway, bridge and rail facilities near the new stadium.
But no one is ready to declare the area a gridlock-free zone.
There will be "a lot of excitement," said Mr. Chapin, smiling faintly.
"That's as far as I'll go."
Dr. Dana Frank, a baseball fan who lives in the Baltimore County neighborhood of Stoneleigh, is a physician and expert on headaches -- and he sees one coming.
"I have gone to games at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Memorial Stadium," he said. "I have never perceived a major traffic problem at Memorial Stadium, especially compared to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. Fenway Park can be an absolute nightmare. And to me, it is basically a harbinger of things to come, in terms of a downtown stadium."
Almost 14,000 cars are expected to converge on the new 47,000-seat stadium -- bounded on three sides by Russell, Camden and Howard streets -- for Opening Day and other sellouts, state and city traffic planners say. But only about 5,100 cars will be able to park at the site in the parking lot south of the stadium. Nearly all the residential neighborhoods near the ballpark are expected to be off-limits for fan parking.
So one day in April 1992, there could be more than 8,000 drivers prowling along downtown streets searching for lots and garages with vacant spaces. Almost no one except the players, Orioles management and VIPs will park for free: The average cost for a fan, stadium planners say, will be $4.50.
Transportation planners are not sure exactly what the hunt for parking might trigger. One fear is that drivers from Bel Air will search west of the stadium, Catonsville fans head east, York residents look south and Washingtonians wander north -- converging on a handful of intersections.
Another fear is that everyone will compete for spaces in the parking garages and lots closest to the stadium, filling the spaces quickly and jamming those streets. Or motorists in heavy traffic on Interstate 95 heading north toward the Fort McHenry Tunnel might disregard signs and radio messages advising them to take alternative routes.
If some through traffic on I-95 is not diverted during a sellout, said Deputy Chief Engineer Thomas Hicks of the State High way Administration, traffic could back up from the Interstate 395 XTC off-ramp as far as the Baltimore Beltway, a distance of about four miles.
Prompted in part by these concerns, the city is spending $46.9 million to improve the interstate, road and bridge network around the stadium -- including building a $4.6 million ramp connecting I-395 with the parking lot and spending $17.2 million to widen I-95 between Caton Avenue and Russell Street.
The Stadium Authority has spent $3 million to aid in construction of the new Camden rail station for the Baltimore light rail and Maryland Rail Commuter train lines.
The state Department of Transportation is spending another $9.4 million on the station, platform and rail improvements. (State officials say the rail work would have been done even without the stadium.)
To cope with the inevitable highway congestion, the State Highway Administration plans to open a traffic operations center in the Baltimore & Ohio Warehouse at Camden Yards, where specialists will monitor traffic conditions using radio links with the state police, SHA workers and other sources.
The center will try to steer I-95 drivers to alternate routes during stadium events, using stationary and portable remote-controlled variable message signs and the Beltway's network of nine short-range Traffic Advisory Radio stations, which transmit at 530 AM.
With much of the concrete already poured, the city and state are beginning to think about their grand strategy for reducing stadium traffic: promoting mass transit.