A good time to try the road not taken


January 08, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

For all those folks who have been mired in traffic backups along Russell Street heading into and out of downtown, there's a ray of hope: The 30-month project is in its final phase of rush-hour disruptions.

The city Department of Transportation wound up the second phase of the $25.9 million replacement of the bridge over Monroe Street late last month. That means construction of the southbound lanes of the bridge south of the Camden Yards stadiums is complete.

Phase 3, involving the construction of the northbound lanes and a ramp to westbound Monroe, began last week, according to department spokeswoman Tia Waddy.

According to Waddy, that part of the project is on a course for completion in October as scheduled. After that, there will be some closings for work on a new median, but they shouldn't affect rush hour, according to the city.

Russell Street, the city's main southern gateway before Interstate 395 opened, has been the site of extensive lane closures since the project got under way in the spring of 2005.

My e-mail has shown that some people have been mystified that the project has taken as long as it has. Others seem to believe it's a plot directly targeting them. Some folks apparently have continued to drive into the same bottleneck day after day, expecting a different result, rather than seek an alternate route.

These are the facts:

Bridges - even ones you don't really perceive as bridges - don't last forever. The 1,042-foot Russell Street bridge has been taking a pounding from cars, trucks and buses since 1963 - two years after the opening of the now-demolished original Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac.

Road projects take time, especially when officials decide not to close the road entirely. Waddy said city officials decided Russell Street was too important a gateway to close entirely. As a result, the city closed three of the six lanes - keeping two open in the direction with the heavier traffic flow and one in the other.

During the project, the city has consistently urged motorists to seek out alternate routes and has posted several on its Web site, www.russellgateway.org. On Friday, I made a detour from my usual commute to scout the project and found plenty of signage urging motorists to find another way.

Some of the alternate routes suggested by the city seem to be of dubious value. Coming into downtown via Edmondson Avenue, for instance, is rather a stretch for people whose normal route would be Maryland Route 295 (the Baltimore-Washington Parkway extended) to Russell Street. Using Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 is a reasonable alternative, but I'd bet a good percentage of people who use 295 do so because they don't like playing with tractor-trailers on the interstate.

One of the best alternative routes is not on the city's Web site, but is partially marked with detour signs.

Just as you're approaching the work zone, there's an exit for Waterview Avenue, marked with a detour sign. If you see congestion ahead - or are mired in it already - take it. You are about to see a side of the city you might not have known was there.

Bear right onto Waterview and then bear left to stay on it. The well-named Waterview is the road that leads to the Middle Branch of the Inner Harbor. It's fairly lightly traveled, has few lights and is rather scenic because one of the city's more attractive parks runs along the shore.

Follow the detour signs to Route 2 and take a left to get on the Hanover Street bridge. But at the end of the bridge, stop looking for detour signs and get in the far-right lane. Get on I-95 heading south toward Washington, an exit that also leads to downtown. Once on 95, you'll want to exit almost immediately onto I-395, which leads you into Conway Street and downtown.

(The official city detour takes you through the stop-and-go, block-by-block traffic of South Baltimore. It's a good, safe choice - you don't want people who are following detour signs trying to make quick maneuvers on an interstate - but not the fastest route.)

This rather narrow subject leads to a broader point: Every commuter should have at least one alternate route - and probably more - planned out for use if the primary route becomes a construction site or a disaster scene. It's surprising how many people learn one way from Point A to Point B, use it every day for years, and are totally befuddled when a truck accident shuts the main route down. If that describes you, here's a plan:

Even if you're uncomfortable with reading maps - rapidly becoming a lost art as our schools give short shrift to geography - get a Maryland road map. The state gives them out free at tourist offices and I-95 rest stops. How often does the state give you something useful for free?

Trace a way to your destination other than the one you're used to. Leave home early some day and try it out. That way, when the inevitable truck crash/water main break/plague of locusts hits, you'll be comfortable with the backdoor route.

If maps make your head hurt and your primary route involves an interstate, you can log on to MapQuest. Just type in your coordinates, get your directions, check the box that says "Avoid Highways" and run the directions again. It'll tell you how to get there on the "old" roads with stoplights and fewer trucks. You might find you like the alternate route better.


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