Don't get steamed over repairs on Guilford Avenue


February 21, 1994

Steam belches forth from the smokestack on Guilford Avenue in downtown Baltimore as if some locomotive were buried at full throttle under the pavement.

Motorists must dodge metal plates surrounding the stack erected along the 200 block of Guilford months ago. The vapor itself can be a distraction, so fierce is the hot steam that shoots upward.

Intrepid Commuter recently heard from a reader puzzled by this imposing structure. What is it? Why is it there? Will you please make it go away?

For an answer, we turned to the folks at Trigen-Baltimore Energy Corp. Trigen -- formerly the Baltimore Thermal Energy Corp. -- produces steam, much of it at the refuse incinerator on Russell Street, and pipes it to downtown buildings.

The company is responsible for the 17 miles of steam lines running underneath the city.

Once in a while, company officials tell us, you may notice an unusually large amount of vapor pouring out from under the street, often rising from around the manhole covers. Such was the case on Guilford in December.

The typical steam plume is not caused by a leak in the steam pipes. Rather, it's water from a sewer or water main, or runoff from the street after a storm that turns to vapor when it comes in contact with the hot steam line.

But the Guilford problem turned out to be a leak in the plumbing. It took weeks for workers to uncover it. Bad weather, the volume of traffic on Guilford, and the company's policy not to shut off nTC heat to customers during the record cold slowed repairs.

"We can't inconvenience the flow of traffic, so our people work at night or on weekends," says Steven H. Bergstrom, Trigen's marketing director. "We certainly don't want our customers to not have the necessary heat."

The smokestack was installed so the hot steam wouldn't endanger pedestrians and fog wouldn't interfere with visibility. The steel plates prevent cars from falling into the excavation.

"People may not like steel plates but at least they can drive over them," Mr. Bergstrom says.

Company officials tell us that with the improved weather, repairs have been put back on track and should be finished in a matter of days.

The project has been overseen by the city's public works department, which has a large stake in the matter. Both City Hall and the Abel Wolman Building, where the department has its headquarters, are among the buildings provided with heat by that particular line.

In the meantime, drivers should see the steam as a nice bit of atmosphere for downtown -- a bit like a movie from the 1930s or 40s. Think of Casablanca's farewell scene at the airport and all that mist swirling around Rick and the police inspector.

This could be the start of a beautiful condensation.

Is one-way right at Penn Station spur?

Meg Ferguson doesn't like how Baltimore is being railroaded by the MTA.

More precisely, she isn't wild about how the Mass Transit Administration's light rail will connect with Amtrak and Pennsylvania Station.

Our faithful readers will recall how in a Jan. 31 column, Intrepid Commuter outlined the agency's $106.3 million plan to expand the Central Light Rail Line to Hunt Valley, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Penn Station by 1997.

To reach the station, a spur from the University of Baltimore parking lot would go over the Jones Falls Expressway, turn south, and run under Penn Station. But that design means only northbound trains could use the spur. MTA officials haven't decided how they will operate the spur. One possibility, this columnist observed, is that a light rail car might run back and forth on the track between Penn Station and Mount Royal Station.

Ms. Ferguson was unimpressed.

"As a taxpayer I am outraged that the MTA is pouring scarce transit money into a project that doesn't even have a working operational plan," she writes. "Who in their right mind would plan a major train system connection that is one-way only?"

She suggests that commuters won't care to transfer trains at Mount Royal Station, particularly those people who have to drag along luggage.

We passed along those thoughts to the MTA. Naturally, a spokeswoman defended the strategy as a reasonable and less costly way to build the light rail extension.

MTA planners believe more Penn Station customers will be coming from the south than from the north. To build two tracks along the spur, linking one of them to the southbound main line, would increase the cost unnecessarily.

On the other hand, the state can always upgrade the spur if the demand increases, or if a line is built from Penn Station south down Guilford Avenue and the east side of the Inner Harbor as planners have suggested.

MTA spokeswoman Dianna Rosborough said officials haven't decided how to run the Penn Station spur because they want to stay flexible. Instead of a continuous shuttle, the MTA could run a light rail train from as far south as Camden Station with Penn Station as the terminus instead of Timonium.

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