The road most traveled

July 09, 1992

When Gov. J. Millard Tawes snipped a black and gold ribbon to open the Baltimore Beltway on July 1, 1962, Ramblers and Studebakers backed up for miles to field test the much-awaited freeway. When the Beltway turned 30 last week, no cake could be found, no birthday sonnet penned.

In retrospect, what's frightening about our Beltway isn't the speed on it as much as the speed at which it became obsolete and a synonym for unpleasant transportation. A brochure produced for the Beltway's inauguration underscores the space-age promise and wide-eyed wonder the road represented Baltimoreans.

"The ease of expressway driving may tend to lull you to sleep. Don't drive when you are tired," the brochure warned, and "Keep your eyes open for your exit. If you miss it, don't back up. Go on to the next one." Thirty years ripen thundering cautions into quaint homilies.

Not long after the then 33-mile Beltway opened to oohs and aahs -- it's now 52 miles around -- traffic projections were being exceeded. Engineers realized interchanges were built too close together. The Beltway is designed to carry 100,000 to 120,000 cars a day on both loops at any given point, but more than 150,000 vehicles a day travel its oft-congested west side. The road is already at levels engineers didn't think we'd reach until the year 2015; this "engineering feat of the future" seems to be turning into an antiquated engineering feat of the past.

What do the next 30 years hold for the Baltimore region's Main Street?

Trying to accurately predict 20 or 30 years down the line is folly, although transportation futurists speak of single-passenger electric vehicles which wouldn't take up as much fuel or space on the highways. What's more likely to precede that, over the next 10 years, is a wider Beltway with lanes reserved for car-poolers during rush hour. Federal law will push ride-sharing later in this decade and cleaner air will get the kind of attention that recycling and solid waste pollution is now receiving. Maybe the biggest failing of the Beltway was that it facilitated single-occupant car travel and contributed toward Baltimore's preponderence for smog and lung disease.

But the Beltway has also re-shaped the Baltimore region. It halved travel time between Baltimore County's far-flung villages, enabled business growth and it fed the suburbs like a great, asphalt umbilical cord. We didn't come to bury the Beltway, but to praise. . . -- well, at least to wish it Happy Birthday.

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