Work on footbridges snags traffic at schools

Cars, buses run Roland Ave. gantlet to drop off students

September 07, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Footbridge construction in Roland Park caused a traffic tangle yesterday as thousands of students, parents and commuters converged on a city block where traffic lanes were narrowed for the new project.

The fact that few students walk to school in that North Baltimore area contributed to the congestion at Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway, near where three private schools are building two footbridges to link their campuses as a safety measure.

The crush of traffic was concentrated outside Roland Park Elementary and Middle School -- a public school just south of Gilman School in the 5200 block of Roland Ave. -- causing some to wonder why construction got under way as the school year was starting.

Roland Park Principal Mariale M. Hardiman, with students and traffic swarming around her, characterized the after-school scenario as "staggering, crazy and dangerous" on Wednesday, when the loading of about 1,000 city pupils onto a dozen MTA buses was disrupted because some of the sidewalk had been fenced off.

Yesterday, even with a different bus arrival approach, it took a half-hour longer than usual for students to board buses home.

"We've never had kids waiting like this," Hardiman said.

"The timing is unfortunate," she said. "The more help we have from the city, the better. We can't do this by ourselves, that's for sure."

City and private school officials acknowledged yesterday that the timing of the bridge-building -- one on Roland Avenue linking Roland Park Country School and Gilman and another on Northern Parkway between Gilman and Bryn Mawr School -- could hardly have come at a less convenient time.

But city officials, who sent extra traffic enforcement officers to the area yesterday, said permit applications were not filed until June, and plans had to be redrawn to provide walkways on both sides of Roland Avenue.

The project supervisor agreed that the delay was not the city's fault: "There were high hopes, but the plans weren't developed quickly enough," said Robert Nicholson of Henry H. Lewis Contractors Inc.

Four of six lanes -- two traffic and two parking -- on Roland Avenue had to be closed and two makeshift sidewalks were built with chain-link fences supported by concrete barriers to allow for trucks and heavy equipment, Nicholson said.

Jamie Snead, an architect and Gilman board member who has shepherded the project, said, "The [design approval] process got off to a bad start. ... I would love for the permit process to be handled more expeditiously, but two months is a pretty reasonable time."

The Roland Park Civic League objected to the proposed design of the two bridges, but the city approved a plan for pale green steel arches with stone abutments.

"In an ideal world, this should have started Memorial Day," Frank J. Murphy, the city's chief of traffic engineering, said yesterday after watching motorists try to navigate the narrowed road as they dropped off children.

Murphy said the city tried to adjust traffic flow yesterday by putting in a sign at a median break forbidding a U-turn at the entrances to Gilman and Roland Park Country.

Gilman's new headmaster, Jon McGill, visited the crowded scene outside the public school yesterday and said he was interested in the well-being of Roland Park's pupils.

"I wouldn't want anyone to think we're less concerned about public school children's safety," McGill said, adding that the footbridges, which should be finished in six to seven months, would be available to all.

Neither Gilman nor Roland Park Country required students and parents to car pool. The private school students who drive tended to take a different way into the grounds, parking on a Gilman lot off Northern Parkway.

Sgt. Rosa Uddeme, a public works traffic enforcement officer, said the pickup system on the Gilman grounds crimped traffic on Roland Avenue.

"There's a domino effect that blocks it up to Northern Parkway," Uddeme said.

Her colleague, Michon Junior, said the situation doesn't compare with downtown traffic jams.

"I do downtown, Howard and Lombard," Junior said, referring to the site of the recent fire in a train tunnel, water main break and road closure. "This is nothing; I've seen worse."

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