Will history repeat itself on city streets? We'll know tomorrow Memorial traffic was mess

Camden could be worse

April 05, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

By all accounts, Opening Day traffic was terrible.

The weather was bad. It was a new stadium. One writer called the rain-soaked conglomeration of people and cars a "Gordian traffic knot" worsened by people driving "around and around" looking for parking.

That was April 15, 1954, at Memorial Stadium.

Does history repeat itself tomorrow at Camden Yards?

"I think we're going to have a lot of traffic, especially with the prospect of President Bush coming," said Herman Williams, the city's transportation commissioner. "But we have our plans. I'm going to be optimistic."

Despite a ho-hum experience with traffic at the Orioles exhibition game Friday, planners said that they remain worried that tomorrow's Opening Day at the new ballpark will cause the worst downtown traffic jam of the year.

They tick off the reasons: The game is a sellout, which means a 50 percent larger crowd than on Friday. Parking will be scarcer, ++ streets more crowded with cars. People may even be overconfident because of the relative ease they experienced getting to and from the exhibition game.

The arrival of the president could complicate things before the game since streets are cleared for his motorcade. Bush will be arriving early enough to throw out the first pitch of the season.

Police are staying mum on the subject, but in the past, White House helicopters have landed at Fort McHenry. That might mean temporarily halting traffic on Key Highway, I-395 or Hanover Street until the motorcade passes.

"The president's arrival is certainly going to have an effect," said Capt. James A. Durner, deputy commander of traffic for the city police. "There'll be some inconvenience but I think we'll get him in without that much disruption."

The Orioles limited ticket sales to Friday's exhibition, so the crowd numbered fewer than 32,000. More than 12,000 of those fans -- about one in three -- took mass transit, a significantly higher percentage than the 20 to 30 percent planners had expected.

Before Friday's game, the message of a $400,000 public relations blitz had been clear: Take mass transit, drive back routes, park far away and walk. State officials also warned that the new light-rail system might be crowded beyond its capacity.

The result? Baseball fans appeared to act as told. About 5,200 took Metro. Another 2,160 arrived by express bus. Light rail handled 4,400, which was nearing its capacity but still seemed manageable.

The popularity of mass transit meant 7,000 cars showed up downtown, instead of the expected 9,000. And those who drove found traffic heavy, but moving.

People rode in carpools. They arrived early. By the time the New York Mets batted in the first inning, downtown streets were clear.

If Friday was a test, the city passed easily.

"The only complaint we received was from someone who complained that we had scared people from coming downtown with our signs along the Beltway," said Thomas Hicks of the State Highway Administration. "We can live with that."

But Hicks and his fellow traffic experts are keeping on their tTC game faces when it comes to Opening Day. They are looking for things that might still go wrong and fearful that the system won't work as well with twice as many cars.

Consider, they say, what would have happened if there had been an accident on critical arteries like I-395 or Russell Street? What if light rail or Metro had broken down? Or, if people couldn't find daytime parking?

"Traffic will work out fine Monday if people do the same things they did Friday -- take mass transit, arrive early and park at a distance," said O. James Lighthizer, state transportation secretary. "It won't work if they don't."

Unlike Bush, most people who drive to the game can expect to pay about $9 for general parking. Downtown garages will be charging full prices, as they did for Friday's exhibition game.

Officials hope that as many as 30 percent of the 48,000 ticket-holders will arrive by mass transit. That would still be triple the percentage that took public transit to Memorial Stadium.

Transportation planners learned a few things from Friday's exercise. They found out that too many pedestrians were willing to jaywalk into traffic. City transportation officers plan to crack down on that.

About two dozen citations were issued to people who illegally parked their cars in residential neighborhoods, primarily in South Baltimore.

After Opening Day 38 years ago, police complained that traffic would have moved more smoothly had there not been rain and a welcoming parade.

State and city officials won't be able to avail themselves of those excuses tomorrow. The Orioles parade is planned for today; the forecast for tomorrow is cool but clear.

"We're realistic. We know the traffic will be extremely heavy," said Durner. "Hopefully, the Orioles will win so that will lessen the frustration level of everyone concerned."

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