The once-tolerable morning commute into Baltimore has turned torturous for thousands of downtown workers, who have seen highways morph into parking lots and construction sites sprout like so many weeds in recent months.
The snowy weather has taken its toll, but the chief culprit is roadwork. City and state officials are in the middle of the most aggressive road expansion campaign since the highway system was built. At the same time, more cars than ever are on the roads.
Highway officials say motorists will thank them in the future, but drivers today are paying a steep toll. Commutes that once took 20 minutes now last more than an hour. Side streets are jammed with the overflow. Stress is building.
"I feel like I need a break as soon as I get here," said Steven Norwitz, a vice president for T. Rowe Price Associates who lives in Owings Mills and works on Pratt Street. On bad days, his commute has doubled, to 90 minutes each way.
"I've heard about those kinds of things in New York and Los Angeles, and I always thought, `How can people do that?' " Norwitz said. "Well, guess what? Now I'm doing it. On some days, I spend three hours in my car."
Downtown businesses are beginning to take notice. Some have canceled breakfast meetings because no one can make it on time. People whose workdays are tied to the financial markets are leaving home much earlier.
Often, it hardly matters. As early as 6:30 a.m., traffic on the Jones Falls Expressway coming into downtown is all brake lights back to Television Hill. By 7:30, it's backed up to Northern Parkway. By 8:30, it's backed to Ruxton Road and sometimes to the Beltway.
"The Jones Falls Expressway is worse than I've ever seen it, and the west side of the Beltway has been equally bad," said Robert Altman, who has monitored Baltimore traffic for 14 years at Metro Networks traffic control. "To make progress, you have to take a step back, and that's what we're seeing."
The volume of traffic on the JFX has grown by 62 percent in the past decade, to 110,000 cars daily, and west-side Beltway traffic is up by a third, to 217,000 cars daily. Meanwhile, lanes are being closed and narrowed for construction as cars jockey with bulldozers for space on roadways.
Commuters and traffic experts say the worst choke point by far is the JFX downtown. In November, city officials shut down one southbound lane just after the North Avenue exit, squeezing a main artery into the city to two lanes so that a fourth lane can be added.
Falls Road in Hampden has been closed since Feb. 17 because a water main break threatened the road's stability. Detour signs are little help: They point drivers onto the Jones Falls Expressway.
Relief far away
The state, meanwhile, is in the middle of a $67 million project to widen to four lanes the outer loop of the Beltway between Frederick Road in Catonsville and Interstate 95, which some drivers then take north into the city. Historically a bottleneck, that stretch of the Beltway is now even worse.
In most places, relief is a long way off. The JFX widening project is to be finished in May next year. The west side Beltway widening is scheduled for completion by late fall next year, and work on other portions of the highway is on the books. But Falls Road should reopen by the end of this month; workers are shoring up places where unstable soil washed away into the Jones Falls.
Smaller projects are also under way. Five parking garages are under construction downtown, and other private development is causing lane closures on major streets including Lombard, St. Paul and Calvert. A block of Mulberry Street has been shut for a year so that Social Security can put a new facade on its building.
Mayor Martin O'Malley acknowledged the frustration all this work can cause for commuters, but he said it is the price of progress and a sign of the city's revitalization.
"It can occasionally be aggravating for all of us," the mayor said. "We went for a whole decade without any serious traffic delays. But then again, we had no serious investment, either. Progress is inconvenient, but we'll try to get everybody through it as quickly as possible."
The city's chief traffic engineer said he was surprised when the inbound JFX lane closing resulted in big delays. He expected more people would find alternative routes or switch to mass transit. But they've stuck with the choked expressway, which wasn't too bad before the construction.
"The JFX has its share of congestion, but it was obviously acceptable to a lot of people," said Frank Murphy, the traffic engineer. "It just surprised me that a lot of people wouldn't try other streets. Maybe we have folks who are not aware of these pretty viable routes."
He suggested that commuters coming in from the northeast try Perring Parkway, Bel Air Road or Harford Road. Those coming from the northwest should try Liberty Road or Park Heights Avenue. And those coming from the north might consider York Road or the light rail, Murphy said.