In Baltimore, 1st casualty of war is traffic

Choke points on I-83, I-95 at Caton Avenue add delays to commutes

War In Iraq

March 21, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Commuters are adjusting to a sort of wartime traffic flow in the name of homeland security, measures that are snarling traffic at truck inspection points and near the makeshift buttress of concrete barriers and dump trucks parked on Interstate 83 yesterday to protect Baltimore's Emergency Operations Center.

Overhead interstate highway signs throughout the state warned drivers of the "Heightened state of Homeland Security," and a swarm of police officers made random checks on thousands of trucks and tractor-trailers before allowing them to pass through tunnels or cross major bridges.

Precautions are being taken everywhere. Law enforcement agencies have increased patrols of major thoroughfares; the U.S. Coast Guard added restrictions on the Chesapeake Bay; the Maryland State Police lengthened daily shifts.

Security and patience

And for the most part, truck drivers and commuters - some of whom idled on Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway for nearly an hour yesterday morning - have been patient with the security measures and the inspectors who hold them up.

"They're doing their part, and we do ours by not giving them a hard time," said Randy Parsley, a Tennessee-based driver who passed through several inspection points yesterday while hauling lumber from Hagerstown to the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

In separate news conferences yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley described additional security measures.

Ehrlich said most state police barracks will be on 12-hour shifts for the foreseeable future. He also said the state police tip line for reporting suspicious activity, displayed on numerous overhead highway signs throughout Maryland, has received about two dozen calls. No arrests have been made.

State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris was out of town and did not attend.

Later in the day, the state got good news from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: To help offset the cost of increased security, Maryland will receive $25 million in federal money this year to improve its defenses for a bioterror attack or other public health crisis.

At his news conference, O'Malley said concrete barriers and fences will block a portion of the left lane on Centre Street to protect the operations center, where city leaders meet to coordinate response during emergencies such as heavy snowstorms.

In addition, the city lined a dozen dump trucks along the shoulder of the northbound Jones Fall Expressway to protect the building. They'll remain on the shoulder indefinitely.

"You'll see additional barriers throughout the city that may be a minor disruption to traffic," O'Malley said.

Patrols of Maryland's waterways, notably at the Port of Baltimore, have been intensified, and the Coast Guard has asked that boaters stay at least 100 yards from Navy vessels, the Coast Guard said yesterday.

Major headache

But by far the biggest headaches in the area have been near a makeshift inspection station off northbound I-95 at Caton Avenue, where Maryland Transportation Authority Police officers clad in bright-orange traffic gear are stationed around the clock.

His rain-drenched clipboard snugged against his midsection, Officer Thomas Goloski stepped up to a big rig yesterday afternoon and assumed his role in homeland security.

"Whatcha got in there?" he asked the driver, who answered by passing him a wad of paperwork that showed he was carrying furniture.

The inspection station opened Tuesday, police said, and it has choked traffic for miles on I-95 and the outer loop of the Beltway, which feeds into I-95 just before the Caton Avenue exit.

One commuter called that stretch of I-95 "the big merging maneuver."

Worried that motorists trying to exit at Russell Street might dangerously weave in and out among trucks that had just merged into I-95 after inspection, state officials have closed that off-ramp indefinitely.

Until the inspection point opened, there was no system for checking trucks driving north through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, said Cpl. Greg Prioleau, a spokesman for the police. The southbound lanes through the McHenry tunnel and both directions through the Harbor Tunnel have long had more formal inspections.

Maryland Transportation Authority Police fast-tracked plans for an inspection station after Sept. 11, 2001, and soon began experimenting with the Caton Avenue exit because of its easy-on, easy-off features.

Possibly permanent

Now that it is up and running, Prioleau said, the Caton Avenue inspection station might become permanent.

Inspectors out yesterday reported no suspicious vehicles and few problems in dealing with the truck drivers.

"Truckers have been very cooperative. They seem to understand why we're doing this, even though it's delaying them," Prioleau said.

At least for now, commuters also seem to be setting aside their road rage during their slowed commutes.

On Wednesday, the first day of the Russell Street closure, Zachary Ramsey, a state employees union official, thought he'd snip off a few minutes of the traffic jam by detouring to Caton Avenue.

The line of trucks awaiting inspection quickly told him he had made a bad decision.

"I thought it would be a quicker way, but, surprise, I was wrong," Ramsey said. His 20-minute commute from Columbia to a downtown office has ballooned toward the hour mark.

Staff writers Stephanie Desmon, Doug Donovan, Childs Walker and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

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