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I-895 bridge project to cause major delays

State transportation officials have a word of advice for commuters and beachgoers who usually include the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel in their travel plans: Don't.

Rush-hour and weekend delays of up to an hour are expected beginning June 20 as construction crews replace the concrete decking on the four-lane bridge just south of the Interstate 895 tunnel toll plaza that carries traffic over the CSX train tracks.

"There will be eight weeks of continuous lane closures," said Cheryl Sparks of the Maryland Transportation Authority. "Our message is simple. Avoid 895 this summer."

Managers of the $3.9 million project have devised a schedule to keep the roadway open during the most intense eight weeks of construction. Even so, a state traffic analysis predicts that backups could stretch up to four miles during a two-week period in August when only a single lane will be open in each direction.

It will be a busy summer for travel and tourism, with two big events acting as bookends: the weeklong Star-Spangled Sailabration commemorating the War of 1812 beginning on June 13 and the second year for the Baltimore Grand Prix auto race festival beginning Aug. 31.

"We have a tight window between when the Tall Ships leave June 19 and Labor Day weekend and the Baltimore Grand Prix," said David LaBella, the transportation authority's lead engineer on the project. "The contractor has extensive experience — including similar work at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. We have a high confidence level."

The contractor, Eastern Highway Specialists Inc. of Wilmington, Del., is being offered an incentive of $12,000 a day up to $120,000 if it finishes the most disruptive part of the work early.

The transportation authority has prepared a media blitz, using commercials on six radio stations, email, fliers, and overhead and temporary signs to warn motorists to use the Key Bridge or McHenry Tunnel instead, Sparks said. Major employers and 64,000 E-ZPass holders who use the tunnel also are being contacted.

Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, at the north end of the work zone, has launched a multimedia information campaign to reach its more than 3,000 employees and thousands of patients, including a front-page article in its newsletter, said Sandra Reckert-Reusing, director of communications and public affairs.

"We have put an announcement on our intranet. We also have posted messages on plasma screens around the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus," she said. "MdTA has provided us with 600 flyers, which we will be placing on magazine racks throughout the campus, as well as in outpatient clinic areas."

At the south end of the construction zone, Vane Brothers Co., a tug and barge operator based in the bridge's shadow, is urging its 100 employees to take alternate routes.

"This will adversely affect our employees and add time to commutes," said Katie Kenny, communications coordinator. "But the alternative to fixing the bridge is worse, so we understand and we'll cope."

Richard Scher, spokesman for the port of Baltimore, said trucking companies have been notified about the project and its ramifications.

"We are also working with local port users and trucking groups like the Maryland Motor Truck Association to spread the word," Scher said. "We will continue to send electronic email alerts to our port customers leading up to and during the project."

Baltimore police and fire spokesmen said that response times would not be affected by construction and that the departments were working with the transportation authority and the city transportation department to ensure alternate routes are well publicized.

The bridge averages about 71,100 vehicles a day. During the peak of the morning and evening commute it handles about 5,600 vehicles an hour. So transportation officials know that despite their best effort, backups will occur.

For example, the traffic analysis noted that southbound traffic is expected to back up inside the Harbor Tunnel leading to reduced sight and stopping distances, difficulty accessing and recovering from accidents, and other traffic and operational safety issues.

Northbound barriers are less onerous because the I-895 mainline and spur combine to provide full-width shoulders and ample advanced signage, the analysis concluded.

The span, called the K-Truss Bridge, opened in 1957. The name is derived from the shape of its steel superstructure.

Minor rehabilitation work was done in 2000. About 18 months ago, state engineers began an extensive analysis that included taking core samples of the concrete deck, which led to the conclusion that the bridge needed a major overhaul, LaBella said.

The work will be done in four phases.

From June 20 to mid-July, the left northbound lane will be closed for reconstruction. For the next two weeks until the end of July, the right northbound lane will be closed.

The dicey part comes during the first two weeks of August, when the two southbound lanes close and two-way traffic shifts onto the renovated northbound lanes. It is during this period that engineers believe delays approaching an hour are likely as backups extend up to four miles in each direction, especially during the evening rush hour.

Finally, from mid-July until early October, traffic will squeeze into two narrowed lanes in each direction while crews replace the middle of the road and median strip.

"At that point, we anticipate delays of just a few minutes," LaBella said.

The project is being paid for out of toll money collected by the transportation authority at the Harbor Tunnel and at the state's seven other toll facilities.

The last time users of the Harbor Tunnel and Thruway faced major, long-term disruptions was in 1987, when the transportation authority began a two-year, $35 million project to rehabilitate the toll plaza and tunnel. At that time, the McHenry Tunnel was able to absorb most of the traffic.

Transportation officials are banking on motorists learning quickly.

"There's 10 percent that won't get the word. We expect that," said Harold Bartlett, transportation authority director. "But after the first time they sit for 60 minutes, they'll make other plans."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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