By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun
10:12 PM EDT, October 11, 2013
Local commuters and Ravens fans should get ready for major gridlock near the city's gridiron.
Transportation officials are warning of heavy traffic congestion in South Baltimore — and bracing for its spread into the downtown area — as lane closures and other changes take effect near the site of the Horseshoe Casino rising on busy Russell Street south of M&T Bank Stadium.
Football fans will be caught in the mix, despite efforts to minimize work during stadium events, city and Ravens officials said. Commuters among the 60,000 drivers who use that major north-south thoroughfare into the city each day are being urged to avoid it altogether once lane closures begin Monday.
"There's going to be congestion throughout the day, not just the peak times," said Frank Murphy, the city Transportation Department's deputy director for operations. "I would say from 7 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m."
The casino is expected to bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue once completed. But city officials said the impact from its construction is unavoidable, especially given its location along the Russell Street corridor, site of M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards.
"Our plans are designed to strictly limit any off-site disruptions as we continue to develop a facility that will deliver long-term economic benefits to city and state residents," said Chad Barnhill, senior vice president and general manager of the Horseshoe Casino.
Ravens officials plan to communicate the changes to fans and season ticket holders soon, said Roy Sommerhof, vice president of stadium operations. Sunday's game is the last before the work begins.
"There are still a few minor tweaks that we're considering for the traffic-management plan for game-day Sundays, and they're working on that now," Sommerhof said. "We knew that when the casino construction started that there would be, obviously, some impacts for our facility as well as the Camden Yards sports complex in general."
Some of the changes, including the closure of one lane in each direction on Russell Street, will last for six months as city and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews divert underground utilities around the casino site.
Other changes, such as the closure of a stretch of Warner Street regularly used by fans driving to and from Ravens games, will be permanent, though a start date has not been determined, city officials said.
The footprint of the $400 million Horseshoe Casino Baltimore complex staddles Warner, with the casino and its parking area on either side of the road. Plans call for the street to be closed between Bayard and Worcester streets, creating a space for pedestrians walking between the parking area and the casino, Murphy said.
Warner Street parallels Russell Street, and many stadium-bound travelers coming from the south use it.
Because of the closure and plans for two skywalks and an awning, BGE must reroute a major gas pipeline that runs beneath Warner Street, said Aaron Koos, a company spokesman.
"We wouldn't be able to see it from the air, which is how we sometimes patrol our transmission lines," Koos said. Working on the line, if it remained in place, would become much more difficult and disrupt casino operations, he added.
BGE crews will reroute the line to turn west on Worcester, south on Russell, and east on Haines Street to avoid the casino, he said. The cost is being split between BGE and the casino developers, said Koos, who did not provide specifics.
The resulting lane closures on Russell Street — the left lane in each direction for about six months — will create a bottleneck for commuters using the street to get in and out of the city via Route 295, Murphy said. "It's going to affect the west side of downtown," he said.
In the morning, the bottleneck will back up traffic heading into the city from Route 295 and from the Russell Street exit of Interstate 95. That ramp will end at a yield or stop sign, as Route 295 traffic is pushed into the remaining two lanes, Murphy said. The congestion will have a ripple effect as it stalls the afternoon commutes of those who cut across the city to head south on Russell.
BGE also has to do work on Haines, Bayard, Worcester and Warner streets. The work will be done during non-rush hours when there aren't major events at the stadium, but the lane closures will remain throughout the six-month construction period.
The lane closures on Russell Street were delayed for a week to allow traffic on nearby Light Street — where BGE was doing underground work — to return to normal.
The delay also allows the Ravens' Sunday game against the Green Bay Packers to occur without the lane closures in place and gives the team time to get the word out. The next home game isn't until Nov. 10, when the Ravens play the Cincinnati Bengals.
The timing of the Warner Street closure depends in part on BGE, city and other utility crews' ability to conduct work on Worcester Street without shutting it entirely, Murphy said. City officials don't want Worcester and Warner streets closed at the same time, and are in talks with BGE and Caesars about how to avoid that.
When the Warner closure occurs, officials say it might confuse people trying to get to the Greyhound bus terminal on Haines Street, where construction also will be taking place, and football fans who use Warner to get to the stadium.
Fans coming into the city from the south often use Warner as an alternate to Russell as they make their way to the stadium and the parking lots south of the stadium.
"That through route won't happen anymore," Murphy said. "We've got to retrain everybody."
Sommerhof said Ravens officials are in close communication with casino planners — not only to figure out how to best handle the construction phase, but to plot potential partnerships in the future.
"They're building a very large parking structure, and we've been in conversations with the casino management about potentially utilizing some of those spaces for Ravens game days," Sommerhof said. "We don't have 20,000 parking spaces on site, so we have to kind of rely on some of the off-site parking garages and lots in the downtown district and in our neighborhood."
Police will be stationed at Haines and Bayard streets during the first couple of Ravens games after the Warner Street closure to direct stadium-bound drivers to alternate routes, Murphy said.
Drivers are encouraged to avoid Russell Street during the construction period by using Interstates 95 and 395, South Hanover Street and Washington Boulevard, or by taking light rail, Murphy said.
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