Bridge collapse creates confusion, spreads traffic jams to local roads

SHA posts warnings, alters signal timing to handle congestion

Beltway Bridge Collapse

June 09, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

For some, it was the traffic jam that would never end.

Even before a truck hit a pedestrian walkway over the Baltimore Beltway, the ingredients were present for an insufferable traffic mess.

Record temperatures. Overheated cars. Irritable drivers.

Then, just after 5 p.m., the accident pushed some local thoroughfares, and drivers, to their limits.

It shut down the Beltway in both directions at the height of rush hour, backing up traffic for several miles each way.

"It was awful," said Paula Clampitt, 42, of Arbutus, whose commute from Columbia more than doubled yesterday. "Frederick Road was backed up. Everyone was going every which way. Any road they could take, they took it. It didn't matter if it went anywhere."

Motorists tried to negotiate unfamiliar neighborhoods.

"I feel completely lost trying to look at road maps and drive at the same time," said Len Lackey, 28, who got stuck in the midst of a trip from Houston to Ithaca, N.Y.

Brian Morgan spent most of the evening helping stranded and lost motorists at his Amoco station on Frederick Road near the Beltway.

"I don't know which way to send them, especially people from out of town," Morgan said. "Their cars are overheating, they are out of gas; they are stuck in traffic, and they are on vacation."

Police diverted traffic off the inner loop at Southwestern Boulevard, and off the outer loop at Wilkens Avenue. But hundreds of cars were trapped between the two roads -- close to a mile -- as officers helped some backtrack or negotiate U-turns to get out of the mess.

One experienced motorist likened it to weekend traffic to the beach. Craig Rang, 44, a Catonsville machinist who works in Glen Burnie, waded through traffic on Interstate 195 with nothing but fumes feeding his truck's engine. Despite that, his mood was light.

"Even if I had a Big Foot truck and rode over everybody, I'd still be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic," Rang said. "It was like driving to Ocean City."

The State Highway Administration dispatched workers to retime traffic lights, so motorists on the busiest roads, such as Wilkens Avenue and Rolling Road, would get extended green lights. Within minutes, they posted messages on 14 electronic signs warning motorists of a problem and where it was. And they followed a plan established several years ago that identified a detour route in the event of an emergency at that site.

Overall, they said, the traffic was manageable.

"A two- or three-mile backup at this time of day for the Beltway is not unusual -- that's normal rush-hour delay," said David Buck, an SHA spokesman.

The worst of it lasted no more than an hour, he said.

At a 7-Eleven convenience store on Frederick Road just off the Beltway, Lee Hawkins, 52, of Silver Spring, loaded up on caffeine for his trip home.

"I don't know where [that road leads]," he said, pointing down Frederick Road. "But as long as I'm going south, I'm fine."

Highway officials hoped to remove the wreckage of the walkway, finish cleaning up and reopen the Beltway by this morning.

Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson, Del Wilber, Perry Thorsvik, Dan Thanh Dang, Robert Guy Matthews, Richard Irwin, Edward Lee and John Rivera contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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