Baltimore Beltway coming full circle

Divided lanes finished on the southeast arc

November 06, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The hundreds of thousands of motorists who jam the eight-lane asphalt swath along much of the Baltimore Beltway each day would hardly recognize the road's southeastern reaches -- an anemic, two-lane strip marked by painted yellow lines and metal stakes.

But today -- 45 years after Beltway construction began -- a 3.6-mile expansion from Key Bridge to North Point Boulevard is scheduled to open, eliminating the last section of undivided highway on a road that is the heart of the area's transportation network. For the first time, the Beltway's inner and outer loops -- landmarks for traffic reporters spotting accidents and motorists giving directions -- will be complete.

The milestone will pass without celebration. But it illustrates a fact of life for Interstate 695: The road has never been so much a masterpiece as a work in progress, continuously upgraded and expanded since the first four-mile stretch opened between York and West Joppa roads in 1956.

Built to serve 100,000 vehicles a day, the Beltway handles more than five times that many.

"It is the workhorse of the Baltimore area in terms of traffic," says State Highway Administration planning Director Neil Pedersen.

Though the southeast corner of Baltimore County was the last area to be served by the Beltway, residents and state officials hope the latest expansion will spark economic development in an area that needs jobs and businesses.

"Anything that makes traffic flow better would be a plus," says Harry Wujek, a community leader who lives in Miller Island.

For a while, motorists will be able to use only one lane in each loop along the southeast stretch. But in about a month, once barriers and lane stripes are in place, they will cruise on a divided highway more fitting to a road with an interstate designation.

The idea for a circular highway to link Baltimore County's major communities originated with the county's first planner, Malcolm Dill, who in 1948 dubbed his vision the "Baltimore Beltway."

Although a few cities were encircled by roads in the last century, the modern Beltway is linked with the interstate system that developed after World War II, says Robert Seyfried, director of Transportation Engineering for Northwestern University's Traffic Institute. "The real reason was to move traffic between cities."

Work on the Baltimore Beltway began in 1954 and was done in stages; by 1962, a 32.8-mile horseshoe linked Pulaski Highway on the east with Ritchie Highway in the southwest. In building the highway, the state acquired 2,285 acres, including 400 homes and businesses, and six graveyards. Nearly 2,000 people were employed on the project.

State publications at the time described the Beltway as a "sinew of strength for the entire metropolitan region." Motorists were warned not to drive when tired as "the ease of expressway driving may tend to lull you asleep."

Even on the first day, the highway was jammed with curious motorists eager to try the road. Within a few years, the Beltway was congested and lanes had to be added. In 1977, the circle around Baltimore was completed with the opening of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Although the Baltimore Beltway is part of an interstate system, about 85 percent of the cars on on it are local drivers, Pedersen estimates. And though the traffic flow nearly freezes during rush hour, picture hundreds of thousands of motorists trying to reach their destinations relying only on corridors such as Reisterstown, Liberty and Belair roads.

The Baltimore Beltway was designed to serve the large communities just outside the city: Towson, Catonsville, Pikesville and Parkville. Because the southeast quadrant of the area was less populated and had obstacles such as creeks and rivers, the Beltway construction was stymied.

The Key Bridge was built with four lanes, but its approaches were kept to two lanes to save money and minimize the effect on the then-booming Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point. The southern approach through Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County was widened in 1983, but creation of a second loop between the Key Bridge and North Point Boulevard had to wait another decade.

In the early 1990s, planners began looking to upgrade the last undivided section of the Beltway.

Compared with the rest of the Beltway, the southeast side is not congested. According to the latest traffic studies in 1998, from 20,000 to 28,000 vehicles pass through that stretch on a typical day, compared with more than 170,000 vehicles on the west side.

But the two lanes in the southeast were 20 years old and needed repairs. And transportation officials were aware that the undivided stretch had become a serious traffic hazard.

With only painted yellow lines and metal stakes to keep cars on their side of the road, several serious accidents occurred. State police recorded 87 accidents -- two of them fatal -- in the past five years on the stretch between the Key Bridge toll plaza and North Point Boulevard.

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