I-695 Key Bridge approach to expand

September 22, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

The last two-lane segment of the Beltway is about to become history.

State officials today break ground on a $89.5 million construction project that will double the northern access to the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which carries I-695 traffic across the Patapsco River.

The 17-year-old Key Bridge is the least traveled route across Baltimore's harbor. The bridge handles one-fourth the traffic of most other parts of the Beltway. Its average daily load of 25,000 vehicles compares with more than 100,000 along most of I-695.

Since opening in March 1977, Key Bridge has been seen primarily as a bypass for certain types of tractor-trailers -- hazardous materials handlers or double-trailer trucks, for instance -- that are banned from the harbor tunnels. The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the newer Fort McHenry Tunnel average two to four times as many commuters.

But the steadily increasing tunnel traffic has the Maryland Transportation Authority worrying about the future. Rush-hour backups are already at least a quarter-mile long and stretch for several miles when there's an accident.

While the Key Bridge was built as a four-lane bridge, its approaches were kept to two lanes to save money and minimize the impact to the then-booming Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point.

Stephen L. Reich, the authority's executive secretary, said that probably was a mistake. The southern approach through Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County had to be widened in 1983. To expand the northern approach, the authority must demolish a two-lane viaduct that crosses Bethlehem property.

But the expansion will make that section of Beltway considerably safer. No longer will northbound and southbound traffic share the road, decreasing the possibility of a high-speed, head-on collision.

Over the past six years, there have been at least three fatal accidents on that section of highway.

"People deserve the better service," Mr. Reich said. "The tolls they pay are financing the project in its entirety."

The project will increase the number of toll lanes from nine to 12 and permit the authority to install electronic toll collection. Radio transmissions eventually will let motorists pay without stopping, their tolls automatically deducted from a pre-paid account.

Widening the 3.6-mile segment from North Point Boulevard in Dundalk will actually more than double the bridge's traffic capacity since motorists on divided highways can travel faster than on a two-lane road.

When the project is finished in 1998, the authority can begin repaving portions of I-95 leading to the Fort McHenry tunnel without fear of causing major delays.

"Without the really big bucks -- a billion dollars or more that it would take to build another tunnel -- this is probably the last thing you can do to relieve harbor traffic," said Jack A. Moeller, the authority's director of engineering.

Key Bridge traffic totaled 9.1 million vehicles during the year that ended June 30, a 50 percent increase in volume from its first full year in fiscal 1978. Meanwhile, traffic in the tunnels totaled more than 53 million vehicles in fiscal 1994, twice the volume the tunnels carried after the first full year the Fort McHenry was opened, fiscal 1987.

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