Downtown Baltimore streets in gridlock after changes to traffic light timing

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Rush hour traffic through downtown Baltimore has snarled the city’s streets more than usual in the past two weeks after the Department of Transportation adjusted the timing of lights in some key intersections.

“All of downtown is in a complete state of gridlock in peak hours during the morning and evening,” said City Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the downtown area.

A well-intentioned attempt to reduce congestion and make commutes easier through downtown apparently backfired.

Michelle Pourciau, the director of the Department of Transportation, said she hopes that changes her department is making now will ease driving through the urban center in the next few days.

But the slow crawl of traffic in and out of downtown is frustrating drivers. Nearly 120,000 people work in downtown Baltimore.

Jill Popowich, who commutes every weekday from Westminster to her job downtown, said the usual five-minute trip from her parking garage at President and Lombard streets to Interstate 83 now takes 20 to 25 minutes as she sits through multiple light cycles unable to get through intersections.

The problems start between 3:30 and 4 p.m. as Lombard gets all backed up, she said.

Popowich tried coming into the city for an event Monday night and found it took her 45 minutes to get off I-83 to the parking garage.

“I sat at that light seriously for 10 cycles,” she said, adding that buses are driving into the intersections even as lights turn red.

It isn’t just commuters who are frustrated. Costello said people who live in downtown and travel by Uber, the Charm City Circulator and regular MTA buses also are finding just getting across the city to be difficult.

“DOT made adjustments to a set of traffic signals that have made things worse in the majority of downtown,” Costello said.

Construction projects around the city that have closed down lanes of traffic have only exacerbated the problems.

Emails have poured in to the DOT from employees working for companies near the Inner Harbor.

DOT managers have responded, saying that “the new timing pattern has reduced congestion in certain areas but increased congestion in other parts of the downtown area. Our traffic signal technicians are in the field making adjustments to certain intersections to ensure traffic flow returns to normal.”

Transportation officials have told Costello they are working on the problem. He said that isn’t good enough.

“DOT needs to fix it” immediately, he said, adding that he has complained incessantly.

Cathleen Opel, an attorney who works in the city, knows when it is 4 p.m. That’s when the noise of honking starts coming through her office window. For 17 years her commute to Severna Park was a predictable 40 minutes, and she was always moving. Today, it isn’t worth leaving before 7 p.m.

During rush hour, she said, it takes 15 minutes to just get out of the parking garage because cars can’t exit onto blocked city streets.

“You are already angry by the time you hit the streets,” she said.

Once out of the garage, Opel faces backups that weren’t there before because, she said, the lights seem to be cycling wrong. She will be sitting at a red light and see the light a block ahead is green. By the time her light changes to green, the next one is red, so cars are constantly starting and stopping.

“In the past month or so there has been this drastic change,” she said. “Everyone is talking about it. It is a shared experience.”

Pourciau said the DOT changed the timing of some lights as it began a campaign called “Don’t Block the Box” to encourage drivers to stop entering intersections as lights turn yellow and getting stuck, blocking the the traffic on the cross street.

“We began trying to work with our signal timing to discourage blocking the box, to encourage more safe movement,” she said.

Gradually, they began tweaking the system of cycling lights.

“It is a pretty complex algorithm to integrate all the signals in a way that provides for movement,” Pourciau said.

Instead of helping the traffic flow, the changes made some areas worse, particularly on the east side, Pourciau acknowledged.

After the uproar, the department decided to put more of its staff onto the streets Thursday, including traffic safety officers and inspectors to help keep traffic moving and crosswalks safe. After the DOT “rebalances” the system in the next few days, she said, the congestion should ease.

Asked why the department doesn’t just put everything back to the way it was before, she said the department believes it can make the system better than it was before the changes began.

Last spring, officials said they would begin issuing fines to motorists who block intersections, causing traffic backups and creating safety problems.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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