Prayers and oaths

Religious convention draws 50,000 downtown, snarling traffic in the city and on the highways

June 21, 2006|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

An immigrant missed her citizenship hearing. A state education worker failed to show up in time to receive an award. And frustrated Baptists couldn't get to workshops they had traveled across the country to attend.

Everyone was late, late, late yesterday and the cause was "horrendous," "terrible," "ugly" traffic - and those were some of the nicer words commuters and out-of-town visitors used as they described the traffic snarl in downtown Baltimore, on nearby highways and along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Problems are expected to continue through Friday, when a related youth concert at the arena could make matters even worse.

City officials say all they can do is send out additional traffic officers, send them out sooner and continue to warn the public about the likelihood for delays.

The source of the traffic tie-ups was the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education, which drew thousands of people to the convention center at morning rush hour yesterday.

A 50,000-person event - the largest such gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center - inevitably is "going to have an impact," said Baltimore Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes. "It's trial and error."

Commuters all over Baltimore rolled their eyes and shook their heads yesterday at the mere mention of the word "traffic."

"It was so bad," said Christi Tyson, who spent an hour and a half driving downtown from Laurel, a commute that typically takes her 25 minutes. "So bad."

Tyson, an outreach and marketing specialist at the Maryland State Department of Education, was on her way to accept an achievement award when she was waylaid in the jam on I-95. Her boss ended up accepting the award on her behalf.

Convention organizers and city officials met for months to plan for the event. The Department of Transportation distributed maps with alternate routes into the city, sent out alerts urging commuters to take mass transit and dispatched extra traffic enforcement officers, Barnes said.

But their efforts apparently weren't enough. Traffic was at a standstill downtown yesterday morning. One driver heading to the convention said a traffic light near the arena turned green eight times before she could pass. Some encountered problems on Interstates 295 and 395, and I-95 heading into the city was clogged all the way back to Howard County, said David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Buck, who was caught in the mess himself, said there were no reports of crashes - just thousands of vehicles pointed in the same direction, many with out-of-state licenses. And downtown was clobbered by buses, drivers trolling for parking and hundreds of pedestrians.

"There were a lot of buses coming in parking where they shouldn't be parked and blocking traffic," said Randy Houck, a taxi driver. "It took me a good 15 minutes just to get away from the convention center."

David Goren, an immigration attorney, drove into the city from Silver Spring to meet a client. It took him an extra 40 minutes, though he made it on time.

His client, who had an interview connected to her citizenship case, wasn't so lucky. She missed her appointment and had to wait two hours for another slot. It all ended happily, however. She was approved for citizenship and was to be sworn in yesterday afternoon.

The transit bus from White Marsh was filled with grumblers, said Louise Glorioso. Most people were on their cell phones calling bosses, and a few took it upon themselves to instruct the driver about which way to go. The honking downtown was relentless, she said, and from her perch in the bus she could hear people yelling at each other.

She managed to shrug it off. She was grateful not to be driving, she said, and "I figure getting upset doesn't make it faster."

Merlene Lawson and Melva Williams, visiting Baptists from Oklahoma, spent an hour driving from their hotel in New Carrollton to the convention center yesterday morning. As soon as they arrived, they turned around and headed to a Bible reading class at Booker T. Washington Middle School. Alas, the class was over by the time they found their way there. They rushed to make their next class - and missed that too.

"This has really been something," Williams said sitting in a van, recuperating.

"We've spent a whole day touring this place, I guess," said Lawson. "Hopefully tomorrow it will be better."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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