Night travel between Baltimore and Washington will be slowed over the next few months as work crews close lanes, shift traffic patterns and erect structural steel to build the interchange linking Interstate 95 to the new Intercounty Connector.
The closings, which began this week, mark the first significant impact that the $2.5 billion ICC project will have on Baltimore-area travelers. Previously, most of the construction had been along the east-west path of the toll road, which will connect U.S. 1 with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.
Construction is now headed for a stretch in the Laurel-Beltsville area, with construction to extend to mid-2011. And though much of the work involves simply shifting traffic to the median, I-95 might have to be closed for short periods beginning as early as October so steel beams can be installed for a ramp over the highway.
State highway officials warn motorists that there could be delays on I-95 and suggest that they use parallel routes such as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, U.S. 1 or U.S. 29.
"Folks that travel toward the D.C. Beltway will certainly be feeling it, especially at night," said state highway spokesman Dave Buck, conceding that traffic will be slower. Still, he expects less disruption to I-95 traffic than occurred during the recent repaving of the section between Route 100 and Route 175.
But Karen Mitchell-Carothers of Baltimore Highlands expects the worst. She commutes to Greenbelt each morning on the parkway and is expecting an influx of vehicles from I-95 to add 30 to 60 minutes to her trip.
"When I-95 is backed up or there's an accident, everybody gets on the parkway," she said. With the prospect of traffic disruptions, she added, "I'm even more against the ICC."
Construction of the 18-mile ICC began in spring 2007 after decades of wrangling between highway advocates and environmental groups. Its first section between Georgia Avenue and I-270 is scheduled to open in fall 2010, and the toll road is expected to be completed in late 2011 or early 2012.
Though it is well under way to completion, the ICC remains a deeply divisive project in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. It won federal approval during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who made the ICC his No. 1 transportation priority after his predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, tried to block it permanently.
Brad Dwin of Silver Spring said in an e-mail to The Baltimore Sun that ICC construction has increased noise and disturbed wildlife in his neighborhood - driving deer into residential areas and onto major roads.
"This is one of the most ill-conceived, costly public works projects this state has ever seen. The economic and environmental studies conducted prior to approval were a complete joke," Dwin wrote. "If anyone actually thinks this is going to be beneficial to alleviating traffic, they are sorely misguided and misinformed."
As construction along I-95 starts, single-lane closings in the southbound lanes between Route 198 in Laurel and Route 212 in Beltsville could begin as early as 7 p.m. on weeknights between now and late September. Northbound single-lane closings could start as early as 8 p.m. Double-lane closings in both directions could occur as early as 11 p.m., according to the State Highway Administration,
The state's agreement with its contractor calls for southbound lanes to reopen each morning by 6 a.m. and northbound lanes by 7 a.m. But Buck said crews are usually expected to finish their work earlier than that to avoid interfering with peak morning travel.
To allow for construction of feeder lanes for the new interchange, highway workers will shift southbound traffic to the left by repainting stripes and using the inside median as a travel lane. That change, described by Buck as a "subtle shift," is scheduled to take place Monday and remain in effect through July 2011.
As part of the shift, the highway agency will narrow the left three lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet over a stretch of about three-quarters of a mile. The posted speed will remain 65 mph, but stepped-up enforcement is planned for the work zone.
After that, Buck said, attention will shift to the northbound lanes, which will require a smaller, barely noticeable change in traffic patterns.
Buck said the lane closings will occur on a "sporadic" basis through Sept. 29, after which travel will return to normal except for the leftward shift and narrower lanes. No work will be performed on Friday or Saturday nights, and the project will be suspended Sept. 6, a Sunday, for Labor Day.
Within weeks after the end of that phase, highway officials expect another series of lane closings starting as early as October to install 20 steel beams that will form the skeleton of the ICC bridge over I-95. Buck said that work will last for several weeks.
He said those closings will occur late at night - between midnight and 4 a.m. - and could close all or most lanes for relatively brief intervals. Typically, the contractor would be permitted to halt traffic for 15 minutes at a time, after which the road would be reopened to let traffic flow.
During the work this month and next, project managers can delay lane closings if traffic is still heavy at 7 p.m., Buck said.
"If they need to push it to 7:30 or 7:45, they will. Or 8 o'clock," he said. "We can't wait until 10 to do it."