An unnerving test of patience

Midday closure of two city tunnels due to terror threats leaves motorists stuck with trying to find new routes out of the area

October 19, 2005|By MICHAEL DRESSER AND LYNN ANDERSON | MICHAEL DRESSER AND LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTERS

Terrorist threat or not, Lorraine Lewis of Baltimore was determined to get to her hair stylist in Laurel yesterday for her regular cut and curl.

"No, no, no - I am not going to cancel this appointment," Lewis, 32, said as she waited in her Hyundai sedan on a ramp leading to the Fort McHenry Tunnel - desperate for some salon TLC.

She was among thousands of motorists who found themselves stuck yesterday when the approaches to two of Baltimore Harbor's three crossings were transformed into long, thin parking lots for about two hours - testing motorists' patience while authorities dealt with either a terrorist threat or a case of "never mind."

The midday closings of the Harbor Tunnel and the Fort McHenry Tunnel formed a huge clot in the circulation of traffic around Baltimore and up and down the Interstate 95 corridor. The Harbor Tunnel was closed for a little more than two hours. Four lanes of the Fort McHenry Tunnel were closed for an hour, and all eight were shut down for another hour.

Some motorists had enough notice to find an alternate route, while unlucky drivers found themselves trapped as helicopters beamed their plight to television viewers across the nation.

But for the most part, people seemed to take the unexpected delay, which came on a day when perfect autumn weather encouraged extra-vehicular outings, with a certain serenity.

"People just got out of their cars and talked. No one was getting really frustrated," said Mary Foster of Harford County.

The 35-year-old mother of three, who was driving her truck-driver husband from their Belcamp home to pick up his rig off I-95 in Southeast Baltimore, said the closings turned what should have been a 20-minute trip into a journey of about an hour.

Foster coped by letting her sons Andrew, 2, and Dany, 3, out of their car seats so they could jump around and play. She also opened the Ford Windstar's side doors to let in a cool breeze.

"I think people today have more patience," Foster said, "especially after 9/11."

Not everybody was showing as much equanimity.

Truck drivers Rick Sires and David Campbell, who were hauling titanium plates from the Rukert marine terminal in Canton to Pittsburgh, said they enjoy watching motorists in passenger vehicles fuming about traffic delays. Sometimes they honk their horns and wave at people just to make them smile, they said.

"It never fails that the car people panic," Campbell said. "You'll see them on their phones shouting."

Sires and Campbell, driving separate trucks, quickly devised an alternate route to bypass the McHenry Tunnel. Instead, they planned to take I-95 North and swing westward on the Beltway to avoid the mess.

Trucks comprise about 10 percent of the 186,000 drivers who pass through the two tunnels on an average day. Often they have more time-sensitive cargo than titanium.

Louis Campion, senior vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said most drivers take backups in stride, especially when they're security-related. But, he noted that once the tunnels close, the alternatives for getting around or across Baltimore harbor are not appealing.

"The Key Bridge is not set up to handle that kind of volume increase," Campion said. "You could speculate on how much extra time it would take you, but then you couldn't anticipate how much added traffic there would be."

Dennis Miedusiewski, an owner of Den-El Transfer Co., which has a fleet of 13 trucks, said he got on the radio to make sure other drivers knew how to get around the traffic jams. He said that once a driver is on the Beltway heading south on I-95 North of Baltimore, he's "pretty much stuck."

Truckers then must either idle in traffic or exit onto Eastern Avenue, avoiding trucker restrictions inside the city and dealing with traffic around the harbor.

"I was giving [other drivers] the skinny on where to go and what to do," he said. "If you're cut off from the piers today and the ship sails tonight, you have to wait another week to get the cargo out. It's pretty important to be able to get to the port."

But for Lewis, the stakes were higher.

After being stuck on the ramp for about 45 minutes, she negotiated a deal with obliging truckers who had been blocking her way to the open northbound I-95 ramp. With their help, she was soon on her way to Laurel - looping around the western side of the Beltway.

It seemed like a long way to go, but Lewis said she was desperate.

"This is a hair emergency," she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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