Baltimore council members object to plan to turn Boston Street into 'superhighway'

City Council members are objecting to a proposal to spend millions of dollars widening Boston Street in Southeast Baltimore — a move one official says would turn the road into a “superhighway.”

Since the demise of the Red Line light rail plan, Baltimore officials have studied how to improve transportation in an already traffic-congested part of town where the $1.8 billion Harbor Point development is rising.

In the next five years, city officials project that 11,000 more cars per day will travel through the area that connects I-95 to downtown.

“Traffic issues in the Boston Street corridor linking downtown with I-95 to the east through Fells Point and Canton along the waterfront have long been a concern,” a new report from the city’s Department of Transportation says. “Major developments in the Harbor East, Harbor Point and Canton communities have been and will continue to be the driving force of traffic growth.”

The Boston Street Multi-Modal Corridor Study also recommends improving bike infrastructure and public transportation. It’s the $2 million proposal to widen Boston Street to accommodate more cars that is drawing criticism. City planning documents say the latest recommendations are part of a $50 million plan to widen the road.

City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the area, posted a video to Facebook opposing the plan. He argues the proposal favors commuters who drive through the Canton area, rather than its residents.

About two-thirds of drivers who use Boston Street do not live in the surrounding neighborhoods, city officials say.

“Our focus needs to be on building Baltimore for the people who live here,” Cohen said. “When I read the plan, it does not seek to address what I hear from residents every day: They want a walk-able, livable community. Building a superhighway through Boston Street is not that.”

That view is shared by leaders of the Canton Community Association, whose transportation committee chairman is encouraging the city to change its plan.

“Boston Street has really turned into a freeway for people to get from I-95 to downtown,” said Mark Edelson of the community association. “The recommendations open up Boston Street to more commuter traffic. To me the way we solve the problems is through more bus routes, more circulator routes, water taxi, bike share and bike lanes.”

In addition to spending $2 million to widen Boston Street, the study recommends:

  • Spending $1.5 million to install devices to adjust traffic signals to limit congestion;
  • Making more than $1 million in improvements at five Boston Street intersections;
  • Building $550,000 in sidewalks to connect existing sidewalks throughout the area;
  • Spending $500,000 to put in bike lanes along nearby Foster Avenue or Hudson Street.

City officials are accepting feedback on their proposals through Sept. 17. Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh, emphasized the plan is not final.

“These are all recommendations,” he said. “The mayor hasn’t agreed to them. She will take them under advisement, and certainly will consider Councilman Cohen’s and the community’s concerns as she looks to make improvements in this important area.”

Boston Street was supposed to be home to the $2.9 billion east-west Red Line light rail project that was to run from Woodlawn in Baltimore County to Bayview in East Baltimore. But Gov. Larry Hogan killed the planned line in 2015, calling it a “wasteful boondoggle” and returning $900 million in federal funds for the project.

Bikemore, the city’s cycling advocacy group, called the latest recommendations “disastrous.”

“This was supposed to be a way to improve mobility because of the Red Line cancellation,” said Liz Cornish, Bikemore’s director. “But there’s nothing in the study about planning to do anything besides increasing capacity for cars. We need to get serious about how we’re investing in biking, walking and transit.”

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey said the proposal is the latest example of why the city needs “Complete Streets" legislation. He has introduced a bill aimed at forcing the city's Transportation Department to provide more bike lanes, sidewalks and public transit options.

“It certainly doesn’t advance any opportunity for any of the 30 percent of Baltimore households that lack access to a car,” Dorsey said of the city’s latest plan. “It begs the question: Who are we doing this for? It’s really just repeating the mistakes of the past.”

Dorsey’s bill comes as the Pugh administration reviews bike lanes and parking spaces around Baltimore to make sure city streets have enough room for fire equipment to pass. The review came after a protected bike lane on Potomac Street in Canton sparked heated debate.

For decades, city officials have mulled the idea of a highway that runs through East Baltimore.

When plans for an east-west interstate highway to connect I-83 to I-95 were canceled in the early 1980s, Boston Street was reconstructed into a four-lane boulevard between Conkling Street and Fleet Street. Development in the area picked up in the 1990s and 2000s with major projects in Harbor East, Canton and Brewers Hill, increasing congestion.

In addition to the growth, city transportation officials say a “lack of direct and frequent transit service through the corridor to key regional destinations” and “illegal on-street parking and loading during peak hours” contribute to the congestion.

According to a survey conducted for the city and included in the report, 77 percent of online respondents say they are dissatisfied with traffic flow during rush hour. Nearly half said they would not support converting an existing lane for cars into a lane reserved for bikes and buses.

City transportation officials did not respond to requests for comment on criticism of the report or questions about how much it cost to produce. The city has contracted with the firm Sabra, Wang, & Associates to provide on-call consulting work for up to $1 million. The firm also did not respond to a request for comment.

Edelson said he’s hopeful city officials will alter the recommendations after hearing from the community.

“The city is going to get a significant amount of feedback from the Southeast community who are all collectively frustrated with the recommendation,” he said. “I think they’ll have to be amenable to changing it. There are two ways we can go: We can continue building a city for cars or we can build a city for people. They will hopefully change direction.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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