Russell Street

A worker waits to cross Russell Street across near the Horseshoe Casino. Congested traffic moves slowly during the rush hour near the casino, which is under construction. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / July 22, 2014)

Baltimore commuters, take heart: Some of the frustration felt in recent weeks on major arteries to downtown will soon come to an end.

Beginning next week, city transportation officials expect heavy congestion to ease as several projects on the busy north-south Russell Street corridor are wrapped up.

Construction crews have been working to ready the road and utility lines for the opening of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore next month. The work has caused delays in part because it overlapped with repairs to Interstate 95.

Drivers headed in and out of downtown on Russell Street — which becomes Route 295 — have hit a frustrating phalanx of bumper-to-bumper traffic. When the Orioles have played, evening traffic has come to a standstill. And on some mornings, commutes along a mile stretch of the roadway have turned into 30-minute slogs.

"Russell Street traffic is the BANE OF MY ENTIRE EXISTENCE," Whitney Myers, a 27-year-old Rodgers Forge resident, wrote in an email. She works at a marketing agency in Linthicum and commutes along Russell Street twice a day.

Even traveling against the flow of many commuters — south in the mornings, north in the afternoons — Myers said her commute has become "a total, complete, absolute 100% nightmare," thanks to the Russell Street work.

Congestion has been unpredictable as lane closures and work schedules have shifted day to day, sometimes stalling drivers headed against commuter traffic and on the road during off-peak times.

Even open lanes of Russell Street have given drivers headaches as crews stripped the roadway down, leaving uneven surfaces and large potholes exposed before repaving.

Myers said she has gotten two flat tires from nails along the construction area, and once her husband had to refasten her car's bumper after it came loose during a particularly jarring drive over a pothole, she said.

Relief will come first to southbound evening commuters and those caught in stacking east-west traffic, with the completion of work realigning and resurfacing lanes on Russell Street ahead of the casino's opening.

Congestion has extended across the downtown area on some evenings, restricting traffic on major east-west corridors like Lombard Street as drivers struggled to make southbound turns to exit the city. Some commuters ended up blocking intersections as they waited in long lines of barely moving cars, further limiting the flow of traffic.

The congestion has been particularly bad on evenings when the Orioles were playing because Russell Street is a major access road for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Frank Murphy, adviser to the Baltimore Department of Transportation, said the bulk of work along the southbound side of the corridor, including the reopening of a third lane, will be "out of the way" in time for the Orioles' return home Tuesday.

Morning drivers should see a marked improvement starting in mid-August as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. work is concluded.

Crews had been working for about nine months rerouting gas lines around the casino facility, which forced lane closures and caused severe traffic along the corridor through the winter.

Aaron Koos, a BGE spokesman, said crews monitoring gas levels in the area noticed high readings in conduits and manholes this month and determined there was a leak along the line.

As a result, one right-hand lane of northbound Russell Street will remain closed through the middle of next month as crews check joints along the line, Koos said.

The continuing work is between Bush and Haines streets, affecting traffic from Route 295 and the off-ramp from Interstate 95, which meet just south of Bush before dumping traffic onto Russell.

The Russell Street work has overlapped with long-term work repairing concrete decks and roadway joints along Interstate 95 south of the city, which has clogged traffic there and on Interstate 395, another major north-south access into downtown.

That $66 million project on 4.4 miles of the elevated highway between Caton Avenue and the Fort McHenry Tunnel is expected to last through the middle of 2016.

The Russell Street road and utility improvements are being paid for by the Horseshoe Casino and BGE; officials have declined to give the price tag beyond calling it a "multimillion-dollar project."

Casino officials referred questions about traffic to city officials, but said they are on track to open as scheduled on Aug. 26.

City and casino officials say they do not expect the casino to be a major source of traffic once it opens, because peak hours at the casino are not expected to overlap with peak commuting hours.

Still, Myers worries that an influx of gamblers onto the roadway will cause new headaches.

"I don't know what casino traffic will be like early in the morning or at rush hour in the afternoon," she said, "but hopefully the traffic going to the casino doesn't blow up the traffic pattern too much."

krector@baltsun.com

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