The most dangerous workplace Beltway widening: Workers who try to keep vehicles from running into road repairs labor in the dark amid speeding traffic.

April 07, 1996|By LIZ ATWOOD | LIZ ATWOOD,SUN STAFF

By 7 p.m. the rush-hour congestion has eased, and traffic again is coursing through the west side of the Baltimore Beltway at speeds topping 70 mph.

In the glare of oncoming headlights, Will Thompson, wearing a reflector vest and yellow hard hat, pushes orange and white barrels onto the highway to close the right lane. Even though signs a half-mile back warn of the closure, a motorcycle is within feet of Mr. Thompson before it swerves to the center lane.

It's a typical night of the $55-million widening of the beltway. When the project is completed in fall 1998, the loop between Reisterstown Road and Interstate 83 south will be expanded from six lanes to eight, making the commute easier for 170,000 drivers each day. But despite signs telling motorists, "We're making it wider for you and your rider," the drivers who negotiate the nightly lane closures often seem less than appreciative.

"You get curses and yells only because you're modifying something they're used to," says Mr. Thompson, a foreman for Protection Services Inc., an Arbutus company that specializes in traffic management. Sometimes the assaults go beyond words and gestures to include thrown pennies and beer bottles.

Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Thompson was a Marine dodging bullets in Vietnam. Today he is dodging 2,000-pound cars as he closes the beltway lanes to allow other workers to do their jobs.

"The most dangerous workplace in America is the highway," Mr. Thompson tells his nine-person crew before it goes out on the job. (The injury rate for highway construction workers was 13 per 100 in Maryland for a recent year.)

The Owings Mills resident has managed to avoid injury during the year he has worked on road construction, but he came close once when a car knocked a barrel out of his hands. "It brings you back to reality," he says.

Although some motorists are intentionally rude or threatening, more often they are simply oblivious as they speed down the highway, ignoring warning signs or waiting until the last minute before they obey.

"It's very dangerous," says Jerry Miller, the State Highway Administration's assistant project manager for the Beltway widening. "You don't know if someone will hit a barrel, and it will come flying at you, or people will throw things."

One Sunday night, three drunken drivers ignored the directional signs, and one ended up driving down the closed lane, passing line painters and nearly colliding with the machine removing pavement.

To keep traffic moving as normally as possible, the State Highway Administration (SHA) hasn't changed the posted speed on the beltway. And even though the lanes have been narrowed from 12 to 11 feet, traffic hasn't slowed.

The workers say they get used to toiling within feet of the metallic projectiles that speed by them. "It seems a lot faster standing here," says Andy Wintermitz, traffic manager for Dick Enterprises, the general contractor on the project, as he stands beside the exit ramp onto Falls Road.

The contract on the project specifies that most of the work is to be done between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. to avoid traffic tie-ups. But night work poses it own problems. It is harder to see and be seen. And it takes a couple of weeks to become accustomed to working from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., Mr. Wintermitz says.

Already the project, which began March 12, is behind schedule because of rain and unexpected problems.

For the SHA officials overseeing the project, the delays can be exasperating. Not only must they keep up with the progress of the work, they must check to see that proper procedures are being followed.

And much can go wrong on a $55 million project that will employ 300 during the next 2 1/2 years.

One night, project manager Dan Witt noticed a sign near the exit to Interstate 83, warning that the right lane was closed ahead. But a few hundred yards down the beltway, traffic was being moved out of the left lane. The confusion arose because the sign was set up to warn drivers taking the exit south onto I-83 that the right lane of that road was closed.

While Mr. Witt was ordering his men to change the position of the sign, a supervisor of Penn Line Service was trying to figure out how to get his trucks out of the median strip.

TC The crew had been dismantling guard rails and needed to have the fast lane closed to give it time to get trucks up to speed before moving into traffic. But that night, the slow lane was closed.

The supervisor stood in the construction trailer scratching his head. He needed to be in Virginia Beach, Va., with his equipment the next day. Eventually, he sneaked the trucks out under the cover of night.

On the same night, Gary Rutherford of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., stood idly in the closed left lane of the outer loop. The supervisor for Dixie Construction had hoped to start removing pavement at 7 p.m., but the general contractor had told him he must wait until a second lane was closed at 10 p.m.

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