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Drivers find delays on JFX, other routes as repairs begin

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Motorists making their way downtown Monday through either a narrowed Jones Falls Expressway or crowded city streets may have felt a pang of envy as they watched walkers and cyclists easily outpacing them.

Reports varied on Monday's morning commute — the first rush hour since transportation officials closed two lanes of the JFX for two months — but the consensus appeared to be: Whatever route you take, you're going to need more time.

Among the observations:

•A seven-mile trip down North Charles Street starting at Bellona Avenue took 90 minutes. An elderly pedestrian blew past the cars.

•A commute from Reisterstown that typically takes 20 to 25 minutes along Interstates 695 and 83 took 40 to 50 minutes along the Beltway and Reisterstown Road. The lights, not heavy traffic, caused the delay.

•A round trip on the light rail between Lutherville and downtown took only a little more time than a 40-minute car ride from 39th Street and St. Paul to downtown.

•The normal 30-minute drive along I-83 from Timonium stretched to over an hour — including 30 minutes to go three miles and pass the JFX construction area.

"I was cruising along the JFX just fine," said teacher Michelle Hiegel, who endured the hour on I-83 from Timonium. "Then, just before Cold Spring Lane, I knew it was just like they predicted. It hit the traffic wall."

Signs on the Beltway and along the northern end of the JFX warned motorists to avoid what is usually the preferred route to downtown for some 6,000 vehicles an hour, with heavier volume for morning and evening rush hours.

The left lane in both directions of the JFX is closed near 29th Street and Druid Lake Drive to allow for repairs to drainage pipes under the highway. While construction work won't begin until the end of the month, the city closed lanes as crews evaluate damage to the pipes, which might cause damage to the highway.

"By taking out a lane, we are decreasing capacity by 2,000" cars per hour, city Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said. "Where do we put those cars? While so many rely on this route to downtown, it is important to find alternatives to avoid congestion and delays."

Many motorists seemed resigned to rolling backups on the JFX, long waits at city intersections and a slightly later start to their workdays. Most reported limited honking or unseemly gesturing on the part of fellow drivers.

Two relatively minor incidents complicated Monday's commute. An accident about 6:30 a.m. near 28th Street on the southbound JFX and a stalled vehicle near the Northern Parkway exit narrowed traffic to a single lane for one lengthy stretch.

Traffic picked up significantly by 8 a.m. along York Road, Charles Street and Falls Road, as motorists avoided the expressway, Barnes said. To ease congestion, she recommended other alternatives, including Harford and Belair roads and Perring Parkway.

Maintaining moderate speeds and keeping a sharp eye on the stop-and-go traffic will avoid the fender-benders that further snarl traffic, she said.

"It's going to be very easy to rear-end someone because it's slow going," Barnes said. "We know people are going to get a little frustrated. We are asking drivers to maintain a distance, be patient and stay alert."

Linda Williams, who commutes to Legg Mason in Harbor East from southern Pennsylvania, left earlier and took Charles Street south of the Beltway.

"The challenge was the narrow streets and cars parked too far into the drive lanes in the city," said Williams, whose commute lengthened from 45 minutes to more than an hour. "I plan to take the same route tomorrow and be as early leaving home. One co-worker did the same thing several minutes behind me and took two hours to get here."

Apparently, few commuters opted to take the light rail. Ample seating remained on the trains, and the park-and-ride lots were less than half-full. One Sun staffer encountered mostly familiar faces at the Lutherville station, and the ride downtown offered a view of the JFX congestion.

One of those JFX drivers was Hiegel, who acknowledged that she made it to school just ahead of her students.

"I guess that not enough people were scared away from the expressway," she said. She planned to give her usual route one more try Tuesday before testing any of the alternatives.

Baltimore Sun reporters Erica Green, Liz Bowie, Fred Rasmussen, Scott Dance and Ron Fritz contributed to this article.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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