At 40, JFX still serves as lifeline to 'burbs

CITY DIARY

October 30, 2002|By Mark B. Miller

TO THOSE of a certain age, old enough to remember Watergate but not Alan Shepard's 15-minute space romp in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination and Beatlemania, add the opening of the Jones Falls Expressway.

In fact, it was toward the end of John F. Kennedy's scary face-off with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on Nov. 2, 1962, that the JFX fully opened for business.

Motorists could access a stretch of it (south of Cold Spring Lane) a little earlier, but that first Friday in November four decades ago marked the official first-stage completion of this twisting ribbon of concrete that stretched from the city-county line to Guilford Avenue. City and state officials held a brief ceremony about a quarter-mile north of the Kelly Avenue Bridge, replete with a ribbon-cutting and speeches by Gov. J. Millard Tawes, Mayor J. Harold Grady and other notables.

One of them, Bernard L. Werner, the city's director of public works, said that the JFX, theoretically, could carry 200,000 vehicles daily.

Thankfully, that bumper-to-bumper nightmare never came to pass. In fact, just 40,000 vehicles daily used the new road during 1963, its first full year.

Yes, there were mishaps and backups even then. Still, for pure speed, it beat a ride into and out of downtown via Falls, Harford, Belair, Reisterstown and other old and clogged roads of the region.

Planned in the early 1950s, the JFX, which now reaches south to Fayette Street, is a byproduct of the Eisenhower administration's interstate highway system, launched in 1956.

An urban extension of Route 83, it made perfect sense at a time when the nascent Charles Center marked the start of the downtown revitalization effort and the classic suburb-city-suburb commuting pattern was already the norm. The Baltimore Beltway (Interstate 695), which opened July 1, 1962, connected the growing suburban areas and funneled much of the city's commuter traffic onto the JFX.

Downtown-working suburbanites -- I'm one of them -- still rely on the JFX, still consider it their fast-lane lifeline between home and work. More than 90,000 vehicles daily now use it, a figure that would probably be much higher if not for a changed commuting pattern: More of us now drive from Owings Mills to Woodlawn, for example, than from Parkville to City Hall (no wonder construction crews always seem to be beefing up I-695 with more lanes).

The 50 mph speed limit hasn't changed in 40 years, at least in theory, for the JFX, like other expressways, bears more than its share of commuters with a NASCAR bug.

Like the horse-and-buggy turnpikes (Falls Road was one) and electric streetcar lines before them, the JFX and Beltway spawned residential and commercial development, the post-Eisenhower split-levels and ranchers, the apartment complexes and shopping malls we see from Catonsville to Cockeysville, Parkville to Essex.

Mayor Grady got it right when he predicted that the JFX "will play a major role in the plan to revitalize downtown Baltimore." But his call to construct "the badly needed east-west and south-west expressways" met with vehement opposition and ultimate defeat from residents of Fells Point and South Baltimore.

In an ironic twist, this highway that roars through what was once a placid stream valley might have sparked a renewed interest in the flora and fauna that still manage to survive under all that noise and exhaust. And on a Sunday every September, the city closes one lane (between Cold Spring Lane and Fayette Street) to traffic, allowing recreational use for joggers, walkers and cyclists.

Tail fins and Kennedy's New Frontier are long gone, but the vehicles roll on. Thus far, we haven't seen the 200,000 of them per day that Bernie Werner said the new highway could handle, nor should we.

Car-pooling, light rail, the Metro and Baltimore City's loss in jobs and people have all combined to stabilize an average daily traffic that remains manageable, notwithstanding the usual fist-banging, bird-flipping, contemptible backups commuters have endured, albeit barely, for decades.

Today's writer

Mark B. Miller is a free-lance writer and photographer who self-published Baltimore Transitions: Views of an American City in Flux in 1998. Johns Hopkins University Press published a second edition in 2000. Mr. Miller lives in Cockeysville.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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