After nearly 2 years, construction on JFX finally winds down

September 17, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

For commuters on the Jones Falls Expressway, an ordeal is about to end.

On Monday, Baltimore transportation officials will reopen all of the highway's lanes and ramps after what seemed to be a reconstruction project without end. From the city's northern boundary to Fayette Street, city officials say, six lanes of traffic will flow without a road building crew in sight.

For the first time since the mid-1980s, JFX commuters can look forward to several years without major reconstruction projects holding up traffic on the city's segment of Interstate 83.

"As far as rehab is concerned, it's pretty much done," said city traffic engineer Frank Murphy.

The news comes as a relief to thousands of commuters such as J. Stephen Simms.

The downtown lawyer figures the latest phase of the JFX's reconstruction, which took 22 months, added 20 minutes a day to his morning commute from Cockeysville. Allowing for vacations, that comes to about 9,000 minutes - roughly six full days - out of his life.

"There could be less meditation time coming in," Simms said.

The reopening, which Mayor Martin O'Malley and city officials plan to announce Monday morning at the Fayette Street exit, comes four months later than was expected when the project began in November 2002.

What was originally expected to take 18 months stretched to nearly two years as transportation officials bemoaned the heavy rainfall that has bedeviled the $12.9 million project.

"We had a bad snow season this year, which of course slowed down construction, and we've had a very wet spring and summer," said David Brown, spokesman for the city Department of Transportation.

The work was completed under the direction of the city, which is responsible for the 7 miles of I-83 that run from Mount Washington to downtown. The current project rebuilt and widened a 0.86-mile stretch of the expressway between Howard and Eager streets.

Federal funds accounted for 80 percent of the cost, with the city and a small amount of state money accounting for the rest, Brown said. The JFX carries an average of 70,000 vehicles on the average workday, he said.

While many of those drivers may have cursed the project, there is little doubt it was long overdue.

The part of the JFX being repaved had not undergone a major reconstruction since it opened during the Kennedy administration. Four decades of traffic had left the surface bumpy and scarred, adding to the adventure of driving a highway known for its twisting route and mysterious backups.

More lanes, less curves

In addition to giving the expressway a new asphalt surface, city engineers were trying to uncork one of the JFX's southbound bottlenecks by eliminating the need to merge from three lanes into two at Maryland Avenue.

Other design changes straightened some of the highway's curves and widened its skinny shoulders. Highway officials also updated the road's dim lighting and sometimes baffling signage, while also improving drainage and safety.

The construction has involved closing lanes, ramps and shoulders - frequently bringing traffic to a standstill during times of peak use. At times, traffic has had to whip along at highway speeds between concrete medians that created a tunnel-like effect.

The project being completed is the last of several that have rebuilt the expressway from top to bottom over the past 20 years. Previous jobs - each of which have delayed traffic to some extent - rebuilt the northern sections of the highway and replaced or redecked bridges.

Downtown density

The most recent phase was particularly challenging because it involved a tightly confined roadway near the heart of the city, said Tom Hannan, lead traffic engineer at Whitman Requardt and Associates. Adding to the complexity was the close spacing of the ramps below Howard Street, the builder said.

The delays caused by the work forced many commuters to develop coping strategies.

For Simms, that meant subscribing to XM radio to supplement his daily dose of National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

"When you have two rounds of NPR, the same news stories, that tends to be too long a commute."

Joseph M. Coale, spokesman for the state employees' pension system, said he changed his work schedule so that he arrives at his downtown office at 7 a.m. - giving him a "straight shot" even with the lane closures. He has come to prefer his early morning schedule and doesn't plan to change, but he said other agency employees will welcome the end of construction.

"It's going to make it easier for everybody," he said. "We've got enough stress in our lives with everything that's going on without adding the Jones Falls Expressway to the portfolio."

Sharon Henderson, who works in marketing at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, is more skeptical.

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