Lights out

September 22, 2004

ALTHOUGH things were hardly back to normal yesterday in the 25 square blocks affected by Monday's underground electrical fire in downtown Baltimore, they were much improved. For a few hours as Baltimore began another business week, the city center resembled nothing so much as Third World chaos or, if you will, Rome at rush hour, with hopelessly tangled traffic, blocked intersections and frayed nerves.

The early-morning fire left much of the city's prime real estate with power outages and traffic light failures at 33 intersections. But police officers, sheriff's deputies and public works and transportation agents stepped in to direct traffic. And transportation officials rounded up generators to power the stop lights at key intersections such as Calvert and Fayette.

As for traffic, the emergency had three phases: the inbound rush hour, the homebound rush of employees wisely dismissed early, and the calm after the storm, when a partially deserted downtown had the casual look of a Sunday afternoon.

From our perch inside the affected area (roughly Baltimore Street to Monument Street, Charles Street to the Fallsway), we watched Calvert and Centre, first with no working traffic lights at all, then with lights powered by a generator, and finally, when the generator ran out of gas, with two human traffic coordinators recruited from the Department of Public Works. "I don't get paid for this," said one, but she said it in good humor.

Downtown motorists may have forgotten what they learned from driver's training, but the vast majority got it: Approaching an intersection with traffic lights out, slow to a halt, yield to traffic on the right. Wait for traffic on the other side to clear before entering the intersection. In effect, it's a four-way stop.

Somehow, everyone got through it. There were hot tempers but no injuries and no arrests. We'd already survived the tunnel fire and crippling blizzards. By comparison, this was a piece of cake.

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