Commuters face backups on I-95 into downtown

Exit ramp to be closed for work on pipeline from Saturday night to March 20

March 03, 2010|By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Commuters who drive to downtown Baltimore from the south face two weeks of excruciating backups as maintenance work on a pipeline forces the closing of one of the two main ramps leading from Interstate 95 to the heart of the city.

The Maryland Transportation Authority will close the Exit 52 ramp to Russell Street from northbound I-95 from about 9 p.m. Saturday through 6 a.m. March 20. Most commuters who normally use that ramp will be squeezed onto the Exit 53 ramp to Interstate 395 - already the scene of backups that sometimes stretch to the Beltway.

"We are anticipating major delays, especially during the morning rush," said Teri Moss, spokeswoman for the authority, which has jurisdiction over I-95 within the city, as well as I-395, rather than the State Highway Administration. "It is a major closure."

And it's a closure that has commuters such as John Hein and Patrice Beverly dreading the next two weeks.

"That's going to be a disaster," said Hein, director of business development at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum near Camden Yards. "I think it's going to be really bad. It's bad a lot of mornings to begin with."

Beverly, who normally uses I-395 to get from her Pasadena home to the state office complex on Preston Street, is expecting delays as much of the traffic that normally uses Russell Street crowds onto the two-lane ramp that leads into downtown.

"That's going to change the way my day looks," said Beverly, outreach manager for Volunteer Maryland. "There's not a lot of wiggle room in my schedule as it is. I have kids I have to get to school."

The authority, which also operates the state's toll facilities, said the ramp must be closed so BGE crews can do maintenance work on the natural gas pipeline that runs underneath the Russell Street ramp. Moss said the round-the-clock closure will let the utility finish the work more quickly than it otherwise could. She said the work was scheduled for this month so that it would not interfere with stadium events such as the Orioles season, which begins in April.

Moss urged motorists to seek alternate routes, travel before or after peak periods, or leave extra time for their commute. She said the average daily traffic on the Russell Street ramp is 5,250 vehicles, while the I-395 ramp carries 33,900 vehicles a day.

Mike Evitts, communications director for the Downtown Partnership, said the resulting congestion will be a "major issue for downtown employers." He said downtown employment has been growing and that an estimated 113,500 people now work downtown - giving Baltimore the 16th most densely packed urban core in the country.

Evitts expressed dismay that his organization had been given only a week to spread the word to downtown businesses about the effects of the ramp closing and strategies for dealing with it.

"We encourage people to look for alternative routes," he said, directing commuters to its Web site at getarounddowntown.com. Evitts also suggested that commuters consider using public transit such as the light rail or MARC to Camden Yards, then transferring to the city's new Charm City Circulator bus if they need to get to the Light Street area.

In addition to the Russell Street ramp, the authority will close the right lane of I-95 between the Caton Avenue entrance ramp and Russell Street.

Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE, said the utility regrets the inconvenience to drivers.

"Detours never make for happy motoring, but we certainly had to do this work," she said. "There's work we have to do to comply with the [federal] Pipeline Integrity Act."

Foy said there was nothing unusual about the work except that it is occurring in such a busy location.

The BGE spokeswoman said the company will be conducting a hands-on, visual inspection of a 125-foot section of a 24-inch gas transmission pipeline that feeds into a series of smaller distribution pipelines.

Foy said the company believes March is the least disruptive time to complete the work.

"We believe the time we selected, working with the state and the city, minimizes the impact," she said.

But Beverly, who said she's thinking about using light rail on days when she doesn't have appointments out of the office, said she doesn't understand why the company and transportation officials couldn't come up with a less disruptive plan.

"Does it have to be completely shut down? Can we do it on weekends?" she said.

Hein said he'll probably use a back-door route into downtown via Washington Boulevard. But if I-95 traffic backs up so much he can't get to that exit, he'll take Frederick Road and U.S. 40 to make the trip from Ellicott City - a route he figures would add 10 to 15 minutes to his commute.

"I'd rather be moving for 10-15 minutes rather than sitting in a traffic jam," he said.

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