Brace yourself, Baltimore. Tomorrow you get your first taste of downtown ballpark traffic.
Not only is the Orioles' 3:05 p.m. exhibition game against the New York Mets a trial run for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but it's also a test to see how the downtown area will handle Monday's Opening Day traffic.
The Orioles have deliberately sold only 32,000 tickets for tomorrow's game -- two-thirds of the stadium's 48,000-seat capacity -- to give themselves and those responsible for controlling traffic a little breathing room.
The elaborate battle plans for dealing with the influx include an army of people and equipment.
They range from a circling traffic helicopter to motorcycle-borne transit police keeping light-rail tracks clear of pedestrians, from flashing electronic signs along the highways to low-power 530 AM radio stations broadcasting road conditions.
The unknown factor in the equation is how people will behave. Will most drive up Interstate 95 or crowd the light-rail line? Will they circle the downtown loop, looking for parking, and create Inner Harbor gridlock?
"The newness of all this is worrisome," admitted Fred Marc, the city's assistant commissioner for traffic. "I don't think traffic will come to a stop, but it will be slow. I think we can expect that."
Technically, there should be nothing to worry about. Normal rush-hour volume is heavier than the traffic headed to and from the stadium. Nor will the game and rush hour overlap by much. The city's rush hour occurs from 4 to 6 p.m. and the game is not likely to end until after 6.
The problem is that, unlike commuters, ballpark patrons don't really know where they're going. After 38 years negotiating Memorial Stadium traffic, they're beginning a rookie season downtown.
And when they head out after the game, they'll all be leaving at once. Streets and ramps leading to I-95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway are certain to be bumper-to-bumper.
Tomorrow also will present an important test for the Central Light Rail line, which will offer stadium service for the first time from points as far north as Timonium from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Officials of the Mass Transit Administration yesterday repeated a warning that light rail may be overcrowded and that fans should seriously consider alternate routes.
"Our only concern with light rail is that it's drawing so much attention from all over the region, it may be overwhelmed," said zTC Ronald J. Hartman, MTA's administrator.
For fans unsure how to get to the ballpark, planners are recommending other mass transit, especially the Metro system from Owings Mills. There are generally about 4,100 free parking spaces around Metro stations still available at midday.
From other suburban areas, they suggest taking a park-and-ride bus from one of 12 locations (a 13th in Essex will not be available for day games because the parking lot is generally full then).
Four "Super" regional park-and-ride lots offer continuous service: Memorial Stadium, White Marsh, Catonsville, Baltimore-Washington International. The buses provide express service directly to the ballpark and cost $2 a person each way.
Inside the beltway, planners are pushing regular MTA bus service. Two dozen routes come within walking distance of the stadium.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains will also be offering service to the stadium on the Camden, Penn and Brunswick lines with buses ferrying Penn and Brunswick line passengers from Penn Station to Camden Yards. Parking for day games will likely be limited at many MARC stops, however.
About 75 percent of the fans are expected to travel by car, which will likely translate into 9,200 vehicles coming and going. The stadium lots can accommodate up to 5,000 cars but only 2,600 spaces are available for the general public -- for a $5 fee.
The bad news for drivers is that a daytime game will mean daytime parking rates. While most downtown lots are expected to charge a flat $5 fee for evening games, they will all be charging full price tomorrow and Monday.
To avoid getting caught in traffic, officials recommend avoiding congested roads such as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I-95, Interstate 395, Russell Street or the Lombard Street exit off Interstate 83. Better to take back routes such Eastern Avenue or Pulaski Highway and car-pool if possible.
The planners say their one real nightmare is a horde of divers circling the downtown area looking for parking. Garages near the stadium are likely to be filled with downtown office workers, so baseball fans should be prepared to park at a distance and walk five to 10 blocks.
"People are going to pass by parking facilities that are full. They are going to circle and that's what's going to cause congestion," predicted Robert T. Schaffner, the city's chief of parking management.
Residential areas around the stadium have banned parking to outsiders. Visitors who park their cars in those neighborhoods risk a $52 ticket and a tow to the 800 block of Key Highway.
Downtown drivers who aren't headed to the stadium should keep in mind that rush-hour rules will be in effect for most of the day. That means metered street parking will be limited. Congestion will be worst before the game, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and afterward, from 5:30 onward.
Commuters who are stuck in their downtown offices tomorrow instead of at the ballpark may face problems getting home on time if they depart when fans are leaving the stadium.
But whatever happens tomorrow will likely pale compared with Monday's Opening Day crunch. The hope is that the lessons learned tomorrow will ease what could be the worst stadium traffic experience of all.
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
Today: The Oriole Welcome Home Pep Rally, 7 p.m. at Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Tomorrow: Orioles vs. Mets, 3:05 p.m. Sold out.
Saturday: Orioles vs. Red Sox at RFK Stadium in Washington.
Sunday: Family Fun Day, with:
* Oriole 8K race, 8:30 a.m.
* Oriole Parade, 11:30 a.m. along Pratt Street
* Oriole workout, 2 p.m.