Baltimore Grand Prix had better be worth the hassle

Our view: Long divided along east-west lines, Baltimore will become a north-south town on Labor Day weekend

July 12, 2011

For years, Baltimore has been a city divided on east-west lines. East Baltimore political organizations vie with those in West Baltimore. The city's high schools have spirited crosstown rivalries, such as Dunbar and Douglass. Loyalties on the college landscape — Coppin State and Morgan State for example — often divide along the same east-west axis. But on Labor Day weekend, the city's orientation will change; Baltimore will become a north-south town.

The Baltimore Grand Prix, a series of races Sept. 2-4, will cause the realignment. As Indy race cars rocket through a closed course in downtown Baltimore, the city will effectively be sliced in two. Locals will either find themselves north of the race course or south of it. Getting from one side to the other will be a challenge, and the extensive traffic management plans the city unveiled this week, while helpful, won't change that.

The streets that compose the 2.3-mile race course, which starts at the Convention Center, loops around the Inner Harbor, then darts around Camden Yards, will be getting narrower in the coming weeks, as barricades are put in place. Even days before the races start, major downtown thoroughfares, including I-395, will be closed. Buses will be diverted, and the light rail line will be severed at Camden Yards. By Labor Day weekend, when the racers are roaring and the track is "hot," the recommended (and perhaps only) way to get from one side of a downtown street to the other will be to traverse newly installed pedestrian bridges. At night, when the track is cold, a stretch of Charles Street will be reopened for local traffic.

It could be a logistical nightmare, and in the midst of the excitement and angst stirred up by the Grand Prix, city and race officials are mounting campaigns to alert residents and downtown workers to what is coming. A website still under construction,, is designed to show drivers alternative routes that avoid the race. This week, a series of public meetings are being held around town, where city officials are spelling out race plans.

Already, a number of strategies on how to get around town on Labor Day weekend are being floated. One could be called the Horace Greeley approach: Go west. Since the northern passageways out of South Baltimore will be closed or congested, a promising escape route is to head west over the Hamburg Street and Ostend Street bridges.

Another might be dubbed the wrong-way Riegels approach (named after the University of California football player who scooped up a fumble and ran toward the wrong end zone in the 1929 Rose Bowl). It calls for traveling north by first heading south. In this scheme, residents of South Baltimore flee to the south, to I-95, then travel through the Fort McHenry tunnel, looping around the eastern side of the city to eventually get to northern destinations. (Some tolls, unfortunately, will apply.)

Traveling by water is an option. The Water Taxi ($10 for daylong ticket) runs back and forth across the harbor and operates on weekdays and weekends. On weekdays, the Harbor Commuter runs a free water shuttle from Tide Point to waterfront spots in Fells Point and Canton. Of course, north-south commuting families may have to leave one car on each side of the harbor to take full advantage of it.

Cyclists are likely to encounter the same problem as motorists, but the promenade along Harborplace will be available for bikes. Of course, that is also a primary route for walkers, because grandstands set up along Light Street will take over the sidewalks.

Public transit systems will be operating after making major adjustments. Two dozen buses that normally run through downtown will be rerouted. Starting Wednesday night before Labor Day, the free Charm City Circulator purple route bus that normally chugs up and down Light Street will be split into two routes, one circulating in South Baltimore, the other riding a loop north of Lombard street to Penn Station.

The light rail tracks on Conway Street near Camden Yards are part of the course and have presented an engineering challenge. During the race, they will be covered with a mixture of asphalt and mesh, which organizers hope will hold as the race cars zoom over them. As a result, light rail service will be temporarily divided into two lines, the northern run stopping at Baltimore Street and the southern run stopping at Hamburg Street. Shuttle buses will connect the two. Baseball fans riding light rail to the Orioles-Blue Jays games a few days before the race will be deposited a few blocks farther north or south of Camden Yards than usual. (The Orioles, it seems, are doing their best to minimize the disruption this will cause by rapidly diminishing the degree of fan interest in attending games.)

If all goes according to plans, the rails will be uncovered by Monday morning, in time to let the trains begin carrying passengers from Anne Arundel County and South Baltimore to the Maryland State Fair inTimonium.

Perhaps the smartest strategy for traveling though downtown may be to go underground. The Baltimore Metro runs underneath all the congestion and traffic. Its top speed is 70 mph, well below the 190-200 mph that Indy cars hit — but much faster than most things will be moving in downtown Baltimore.

The Grand Prix race is a first for Baltimore, and boosters say it will draw 100,000 visitors to the city, generating millions in tourism revenues and serving as a lasting boost for the local economy. Given the headaches the event is bound to cause, we certainly hope they're right.

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