Downtown drivers can expect about a year of traffic misery as city transportation officials launch an ambitious rebuilding project that will at times claim half the capacity of Lombard Street - Baltimore's principal westbound artery across the central business district.
Beginning as early as May, the city will close some lanes of Lombard Street for the $2.6 million project, potentially the most disruptive downtown road work in recent years. Lombard, a block north of harbor-front Pratt Street, is one of Baltimore's busiest streets.
The work was originally scheduled to begin April 13, but city officials decided Monday to postpone the project so the Department of Public Works can first deal with an underground water leak, said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Transportation. Officials do not know how long the utility repairs will take; the road project will begin after the leak is fixed, possibly in May.
The utility work will affect downtown traffic for a relatively short time, but the Lombard Street road project will cause significant tie-ups for months, city officials acknowledge.
They are urging downtown workers and visitors to develop alternative strategies for getting where they need to go in central Baltimore. Officials hope that many will avoid the expected congestion by using rail transit or by taking alternate routes. The construction impact will likely spill over to eastbound traffic on Pratt Street and the north-south roads that cross Lombard, especially Light Street.
Nevertheless, city officials stress that Lombard Street will remain open, and they say they do not want to discourage people from coming downtown.
"Downtown is still open. Business is still open," said Idris A. Shahid, project manager with the Transportation Department.
The project involves resurfacing - and in places totally rebuilding - Lombard Street between President Street on the east and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west.
Frank J. Murphy, the department's acting deputy director for operations, said the city will rebuild seven intersections along with their approaches - replacing asphalt pavement with more durable concrete.
Murphy said blacktop tends to develop ripples where vehicles, particularly trucks, brake for lights. "Concrete doesn't do that, so it lasts longer," he said.
The Lombard intersections slated for a full rebuild are at Paca, Eutaw, Hanover, Charles, Light, Calvert and South streets.
While the city expects the project to take about a year, officials are working with the contractor to see if it can be done in less time, Murphy said.
In sections where construction is taking place, the road will be constricted to half its normal six lanes. In addition to the rebuilding of intersections and resurfacing of the rest of Lombard downtown, the city will be working on improvements to electrical and other utilities.
City officials have identified three groups they want to reach with suggestions on how to avoid expected tie-ups.
For people who regularly go through downtown from East Baltimore, they suggest an alternate route going north on Central Avenue and west on Orleans and Franklin streets (U.S. 40).
For those coming from the north to games at Camden Yards, officials recommend using Martin Luther King Boulevard. Many drivers now take the Jones Fall Expressway to its south end, which would likely put them in the construction zone.
Downtown workers are urged to take light rail or the Metro subway. On July 27, the city expects to begin operating a free "circulator" shuttle bus along Lombard and Pratt streets between the University of Maryland Biopark and Harbor East.
Transportation officials said the city is taking a multimedia approach to disseminating information about the project. In addition to setting up a Web site, www.LombardProject.com, officials will use Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to provide updates.
Barnes said engineers determined that the rebuilding work is needed soon because Lombard Street is so heavily traveled.
"We need to get ahead of it before it becomes a roadway that deteriorates," the Transportation Department spokeswoman said.