Despite wave of construction, inspectors keep traffic moving

Baltimore fights gridlock after summer complaints

October 20, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

Douglas T. Lucas was shouting one morning last week over the blam-blam-blam of a jackhammer that was smashing East Redwood Street to bits behind a row of orange barrels that form a barricade against heavy traffic on Calvert Street.

"You've got my street blocked!" Lucas hollered at a man overseeing the work. "Your permit doesn't authorize you to shut this street down!"

An enforcement officer for the Department of Public Works, Lucas is the city's first defense against a relentless army of construction crews whose work on buildings, sidewalks and buried pipes usually involves seizing large swaths of public right of way from frustrated drivers and pedestrians. Lucas' job is keeping construction crews from grabbing and holding more asphalt than they're allowed.

His mission is nearly impossible. Consider what Lucas encountered in his first two hours on the street Tuesday: a contractor's plastic cones seizing part of Saratoga Street by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center; a delivery trailer double-parked at a construction site around the corner; the roadblock on Redwood; a truck driver turning West Fayette and North Howard into a parking lot as he struggled to maneuver into the west-side renewal project; a backhoe gobbling up one of two open lanes at Eutaw and West Fayette; and a ruptured steam pipe melting asphalt on West Saratoga as a crew tried to repair another a block away.

"There's work going on at both ends of the spectrum," said Mike Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group. "You've got people attempting to maintain an old urban infrastructure, and you've got brand-new construction. Keeping both going smoothly and traffic moving is a challenge."

The heightened attention that Lucas and other public works inspectors are paying to downtown construction projects could be the most important action taken by city officials in response to a rising tide of complaints during the summer from businesses and commuters about the chaos caused by the maze of construction fences and Dumpsters that contractors were setting up on busy streets and sidewalks.

Lucas serves as the eyes and ears for the Public Works, Police and Transportation departments, which have been learning to work as a team to prevent gridlock around construction sites. The departments have been cooperating to ticket double-parked trucks, corral aggressive equipment operators and readjust badly timed traffic signals near construction sites, said Michael E. Rice, deputy director of the Transportation Department.

"You've got to be there at the right time, because it doesn't take long for traffic to back up," said Joe Kostow, head of permitting for Public Works. Kostow said he moved about 30 barrels personally last week that a contractor had left in the street illegally at evening rush hour.

Soothing nerves

In some quarters, the city's heightened sensitivity to traffic snarls caused by construction seems to be soothing nerves.

"I wouldn't see management of construction downtown as a big issue right now," said Walter D. "Wally" Pinkard, chief executive of the real estate leasing company Colliers Pinkard.

John B. Frisch, chairman and CEO of the law firm Miles & Stockbridge, which recently extended the lease at its office on Light Street for 10 years, said he considers traffic and construction disruptions "a minor annoyance."

But whether someone is satisfied or miserable on a given day depends on where the jackhammer happens to be slamming away. Tom Kapp, an owner of the Metropolitan Health and Fitness club on East Redwood Street, is among the frustrated.

Across Redwood, workers are in the midst of an $18.5 million conversion of the former USF&G building to a Hampton Inn & Suites hotel. And just west of the fitness club are excavation sites that eliminated two parking lots for the planned construction of two hotels. Some of Kapp's customers have canceled memberships because getting to the club can be a problem, he said.

`Road to progress'

"There will come a day when we'll see the positive of it. When the hotels are up and built, that will be a business advantage," Kapp said. "I know we're on the yellow brick road to progress. But along the way, it would be nice if the city could manage the witch a little bit better."

Managing "the witch" downtown, as Kapp put it, calls for constant vigilance and persistent effort, as Lucas' encounter with workers on Redwood illustrates.

Phil Mallow, the foreman of the crew that was extending underground utilities to the Hampton Inn on Redwood Street, ordered his men to move the barrels less than a minute after hearing Lucas' order. As soon as a lane was cleared, cars began turning onto Redwood to escape the crawling traffic on Calvert.

"You've got to work with the inspectors," said Lucas, shrugging. "That's all you can do."

But when a reporter returned two hours later, the barricade had been set up on Redwood again. Mallow said he had to close the street to drivers so his crew could move heavy equipment.

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