New JFX lane closures loom

Baltimore, MD -- September 6, 2013 --A neon sign warns commuters that the ramp leading onto I-83 North at the corner of Madison Street and Fallsway will be closing for construction. (Kaitlin Newman / Baltimore Sun / September 5, 2013)

Once again repairs to the Jones Falls Expressway will disrupt travel on Baltimore's busiest road.

Overnight for the next 10 months, work to replace aging rubber bridge joints and damaged concrete barriers will close lanes intermittently along large stretches of the highway, city officials said Friday.

The $5 million project will cause delays for thousands of drivers who use the road, and officials urge that they use alternate routes or plan added travel time.

"Just please be patient with us," said Scott Weaver, the city Transportation Department's chief of bridges.

A separate construction project will add to downtown commuter headaches soon as two lanes of southbound Light Street are closed between Pratt and Conway streets for six weeks for repairs to an underground Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. line.

The Light Street project will begin Sept. 14 and the JFX work Sept. 16, officials said.

Maintenance work will also occur next week on the Bay Bridge, closing lanes of the eastbound and westbound spans at varying intervals during the day and night, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

JFX travelers faced similar lane closures in spring 2012 when the city needed to replace collapsed drainage pipes under the highway near 29th Street, which caused erosion that threatened to create a catastrophic sinkhole. That work lasted from mid-April to late May, disrupting commutes for thousands of workers.

Weaver said this project will not have the same impact. "There's always a chance for it, but we've been looking into this for a while," he said.

Joint-repair work on the JFX, between 41st and East Fayette streets, will begin on the southbound side and will close two lanes each weeknight between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., officials said. When those repairs are complete, work will begin on the northbound side, likely starting this winter.

More than 1,000 drivers per hour use the highway each way after 9 p.m. on weekdays, though that number falls to as low as about 100 an hour overnight, city officials said.

The repairs are the first of their kind in about a decade, officials said. Rubber seams allow the highway's surface to contract in cold weather and expand in hot weather, but they become corroded and worn down over time, Weaver said.

"This work is really bridge-rehab work, just as in people, when our joints break down in our knees," he said. "These things take a beating and need to be fixed."

Concrete barrier repairs on the JFX will be focused on a stretch of the northbound side — the sharp curve around Mount Royal Avenue near Pennsylvania Station — and will cause an around-the-clock closure of the right lane for about 10 weeks starting Sept. 16, officials said. The repairs will close the ramp onto the highway from East Madison Street and the Fallsway for the same period.

Other projects in which ramps were left open but stop signs were installed caused accidents and congestion, Weaver said, so a decision was made to close the ramp for this one.

Vehicles frequently lose control and crash into or scrape against the barriers at the curve, Weaver said, and it's time for the barriers to be replaced. The project will include installing permanent flashing signs warning drivers of the sharp curve, he said.

On the nights of Sept. 16 and Sept. 17, a second right lane of the JFX will be closed from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., from Howard Street to Gay Street, while crews prepare the construction area for the barrier repairs, officials said.

The barrier repairs will be completed before the southbound joint repair work, meaning crews will not be attempting to complete joint and barrier repair on the northbound highway at the same time, Weaver said.

The city will foot the $5 million bill, with the help of state and federal transportation funding, Weaver said.

While road repairs are inconvenient, they are necessary for safety, said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, and city officials have assured her that they are taking measures to alert residents and suggest alternate routes.