Diamond added to the rough

Opening: A revamped overpass and a new interchange promise to alleviate traffic woes at Reisterstown Road and the Beltway.

August 30, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Rebuilding the Reisterstown Road bridge over the Baltimore Beltway was a little like reconstructing an apartment building with families still living inside.

About 50,000 vehicles motored across the old overpass every day while work crews built a new eight-lane bridge, widening Reisterstown Road and redesigning the interchange into what's called an "urban diamond" - the first of its in kind along Interstate 695.

The diamond pattern allows traffic from the inner and outer loops of the Beltway to merge onto Reisterstown Road at the same time.

The last orange cones are expected to be removed today by construction crews as they open all lanes to traffic.

"No one could imagine this when the project began," said Sherrie Becker, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, which held a breakfast yesterday to thank the construction crews who have been working on the interchange since October 2000.

The bulk of the $14.7 million project was complete by Memorial Day. In the next few months, crews will put the finishing touches on landscaping and will make final traffic light adjustments, project managers said.

"People used to do anything to avoid this interchange," said Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat. "But now, I go out of my way to go through it. It's that much faster."

The "diamond" design is new to many motorists. All traffic turning left to and from the Beltway ramps should flow to the left of a diamond at the center of the bridge. Traffic moving right on Reisterstown from the 695 ramp merges as it normally would. Traffic on Reisterstown Road going straight through the intersection passes the diamond as if it were a median. Although "diamonds" have been used in more than 20 states, including in other parts of Maryland, road crews weren't familiar with the specifics of the construction, and neither were drivers.

"It was pretty funny the day they started using the diamond," Becker said. "Drivers looked a little like deer in headlights, like `What do I do?' because they'd never seen anything like it. People flow right past it now."

Debbie Wurzburger, who owns the Toy Chest on Reisterstown Road, takes her son to school and then commutes to work.

"To my surprise, it actually works," she said.

But she said the intersection gets clogged sometimes and is confusing to drivers who are new to it. "I'd like to see some better signs," she said.

Community leaders and local merchants said they are impressed with the bridge's brick facade and the planned landscaping. "First impressions are so important," Reihl said. "You see this bridge ... It says, `This community cares.'"

The letter "P," for Pikesville, will be etched on elaborate plaques to be displayed on the brick near the entrance ramps from the Beltway, business leaders said.

The old bridge, built in 1961, was considered structurally sound. But highway officials said it couldn't handle the increasing volume of traffic and would have been expensive to maintain.

Just before the project began, officials rated the interchange's level of service as F, the lowest ranking possible. There were 23 accidents on Reisterstown Road at the Beltway in 1999; 28 in 2000 - the most recent year in which statistics were available, according to Baltimore County police.

During the construction, lanes of the Baltimore Beltway were periodically closed at night. And with constantly changing traffic patterns on Reisterstown Road, unavoidable traffic delays and minor accidents occurred, community leaders said. The maze of orange cones and construction signs made it difficult for customers to enter and exit businesses along the stretch.

But, Pikesville Chamber of Commerce president Donna Reihl said, "The business people wanted the bottle neck to be eliminated."

Not only did crews kept traffic flowing while they built the bridge, they also kept walk-ways open to pedestrians.

"It was a big little job," said Louis Kindl, a sub-foreman for Rommel Engineering and Construction of Parkville, which installed the new traffic signals and is coordinating timing of the existing ones. "I mean you could walk from one end to another, but there were always a million things going on in between."

The main contractor, Corman Construction of Annapolis Junction, will receive a $500,000 bonus offered as an incentive to meet this summer's deadline, said Linda Singer, a community liaison for the State Highway Administration. "The contractors have been great. They've really worked well with the community, keeping everyone informed with what has going on."

Yesterday's breakfast of juice, coffee and Danish pastry in the parking lot of the Hilton wasn't the first time commuters had thanked workers, said Corman Construction superintendent Vernon Rogers. People regularly rolled down their windows to "tell us what a good job we were doing," Rogers said. "It was really nice."

To complete the project on time, the SHA project engineer Don Schaefer said it wasn't unusual for more than 100 workers to be at the site. "There were many days when crews were out here 24 hours a day," said Schaefer, who stayed up a few nights himself.

State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, got a few laughs speaking to work crews yesterday when she said, "Usually I get calls from people saying, `Why isn't this work being done at 2 a.m.?' But with this project, you were working at 2 a.m."

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