Grand Prix sparks year of street rebuilding downtown

Commuters face lane closures, traffic delays and detours as city prepares for 2011 race

August 01, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Drivers in downtown Baltimore will face a year of lane closures and traffic delays as the city begins a $5.5 million road project to prepare streets for the Grand Prix race scheduled for next August.

City Department of Transportation officials warn that the repairs will start as soon as Monday, with Pratt Street lane closures planned in preparation for rebuilding downtown's main eastbound artery — one leg of the 2.4-mile racecourse around the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards.

The city's inaugural Grand Prix event is a three-day affair that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council leaders expect will draw at least 100,000 visitors to Baltimore and touch off $65 million to $70 million worth of economic activity.

The highlight of the event — to be held Aug. 5-7, 2011 — will be a road race along a route on Pratt, Light, Conway, Lee and Russell streets. Backers say the event will generate some 400 jobs.

City officials concede that the schedule for downtown roadwork has been expedited to prepare for the Grand Prix. But they insist that most repairs are needed anyway and that motorists will not be sacrificing their time solely to make way for roads suited to the low-slung, Indy-style cars that will roar through Baltimore's streets at speeds up to 185 mph.

"A lot of this would have had to have been done anyway, and the pain would have been endured," said Frank Murphy, deputy director of operations in the city transportation department.

That pain will be shared not only by drivers but also by riders of city buses, including the Charm City Circulator.

Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the transportation department, said users of the free shuttle's east-west Orange Route can expect buses to come every 15 minutes, rather than the regularly scheduled 10 minutes, because the dedicated bus lane on Pratt will be eliminated while work is going on. Similar delays to the north-south Purple Route are expected when work shifts to Light Street, he said.

Maryland Transit Administration bus schedules will also be affected, Kendrick said.

Officials estimate that if all goes well, the work on Pratt Street will take about three months. They are reluctant to lay out a precise timetable because they don't know how much subsurface utility work will have to be done or how the city's contractor will schedule the remaining work after Pratt has been fully reopened.

On Monday, Murphy said, motorists will be begin seeing orange barrels and cones as well as highway workers flagging traffic into two lanes on Pratt Street between Paca and Howard streets from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

A week later, on Aug. 9, city officials plan to make the two-lane closure an around-the-clock obstacle from Paca to Calvert Street as the concrete repair project gets into full swing. Officials are urging motorists to shift to other eastbound cross-town streets such as Baltimore and Mulberry.

Once the daylong closures are in effect, officials say the project will become more complicated as they try to balance above-ground tasks with the utility work that must be done below. In effect, they say, the project will become an elaborate dance in which the city, contractor P. Flanigan & Sons, the Department of Public Works, BGE and steam tunnel owner Trigen are all involved.

After the utilities have completed underground repairs, including fixes to deteriorated water mains, the city can begin replacing the concrete surface of Pratt Street. City construction manager Joe Hooper said it's about time.

"That concrete's 35 years old," he said. "There's a couple of areas along Pratt Street that need to be taken care of now."

The lane closings on Pratt follow more than a year of similar obstructions on Lombard Street, its westbound counterpart. Crews completed the repaving work several weeks ago and put the finishing touches on the project only last week, according to transportation department spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes.

Lombard now has a new, smooth asphalt surface. But officials are hoping the Pratt Street project doesn't encounter some of the obstacles that hampered the Lombard job, which was temporarily halted by a major water main break at Gay Street. Repairs on that underground pipeline dragged out the work for months.

Transportation department officials said the accelerated schedule adopted for the Grand Prix could prove a blessing if it allows public works crews to identify potential water problems before they reach the bursting point.

Skeptics contend the ill effects of the event, from the environmental impact to the danger of speeding amateur imitators, will outweigh any advantages. The looming traffic disruption is just another example.

One critic of the Grand Prix concept, Stevenson University philosophy professor Alexander E. Hooke, said he's glad he doesn't live anywhere near the course.

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