Penn Station reunited with JFX

Plaza, roadway link to on-ramp is 1st phase of $23 million project

October 31, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The freshly finished plaza and roadway by Baltimore's train station connected yesterday to a point unreachable since spring of 2000: the North Charles Street on-ramp to the northbound Jones Falls Expressway.

Between 12,000 and 15,000 commuters a day will benefit from the reopening of the quick route north from midtown, city officials said yesterday.

The opening ceremony, attended by Mayor Martin O'Malley, marked completion of the first phase of a $23 million railway bridge construction project. The project, scheduled for completion in November 2002, will reopen Charles Street to the north, Amtrak officials said yesterday.

Still, there was official cheer at the fact that the on-ramp across from Pennsylvania Station was completed six months ahead of time by Cherry Hill Construction.

O'Malley, wielding a giant pair of scissors for the ribbon-cutting, said he hoped the same would happen with the second phase, building a new bridge over eight main lines of railroad track: "Some thought we'd never see the day."

With that, two city fire vehicles - Engine 6 and Truck 23 - sounded their horns and roared down the on-ramp to the JFX.

The reinforced concrete-and-steel bridge being built will keep North Charles Street closed for up to another year, Amtrak officials said. The new bridge will replace one constructed in 1911.

"If you had walked under that [1911] bridge, you would not have driven over," said Charles L. Smith, operations director for the Midtown Community Benefits District.

Because so many Amtrak trains pass through day and night, bridge workers progress in short shifts, often in the early hours, Amtrak officials said.

Workers concentrated on finishing the Charles Street on-ramp before the holiday season, which brings a higher volume of train travelers.

However, the shadow of the September terrorist attacks fell on the otherwise upbeat event. The original plan for the plaza allowed a straight route from the Penn Station taxi lane and pick-up lane onto the JFX. That access was closed off yesterday by a temporary security barrier. Amtrak officials said it might remain in place for as long as another year.

Another security barricade blocks direct access from Charles Street to the front of the station, though drivers on Charles can veer into the train station's parking garage, city officials said.

Federal transportation funds are paying 80 percent of the tab for the railway bridge, with the city picking up the rest. In addition to a design that transforms the public face of the train station, George L. Winfield, the city's director of public works, said the JFX will be resurfaced.

"This is dressing up the area around the station," Mebane Turner, president of the nearby University of Baltimore, observed after the event, surveying the new public space. "It's a much better arrangement than it used to be."

Whether a tall statue - a gift of the Municipal Arts Society - will fill the plaza and greet arriving passengers remains to be seen, because Amtrak officials and some neighbors oppose it. A public hearing is scheduled Nov. 13 in the city's Planning Department.

A third-year University of Baltimore law student, Ralph Sapia, 34, glanced at the work done and said, "They did it in less time than it took us to finish law school." He paused and added, "They worked harder."

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