Commuters entering Baltimore from the south on Monday morning found themselves in a massive traffic jam amid widespread confusion about how to navigate a new construction pattern, in part due to a failure by the Maryland Transportation Authority to update signage about the change.
"It was way, way, way beyond anything I have seen," said Tamory Winfield, a MdTA spokesman, of the traffic problems on northbound Interstate 95.
Crews are rushing to fix the issues before the afternoon rush hour, which will include a northbound influx of fans headed to tonight's Orioles game, he said.
Officials first shifted to a new construction pattern for the highway on Sunday, changing a lane split to one right lane and three left lanes, from an earlier split of two lanes to each side.
The split allows drivers who stay to the left at the initial split to still access exits for Interstate 395 and Key Highway, granted they stay to the right after the split. The single lane to the right at the initial split was meant for commuters taking the exit onto Russell Street, but also allows exits onto I-395 and Key Highway.
Most of the physical signs describing the change stated that drivers exiting onto I-395 or Key Highway should be in the two right lanes, Tamory said — referring to the single right lane before the split and the right-most lane of the three left lanes at the split.
Many drivers interpreted that message to mean they should get to the right, driving almost all the traffic intended for Russell Street, I-395 and Key Highway into the single right lane.
"You're not thinking about that three-to-the-left far right lane as being the second right lane," Winfield said. "You pretty much had all downtown traffic coming from the south jamming into that far right lane."
Compounding the issue with the physical signs was a failure of the highway's large electronic messaging board near Caton Avenue, just before the construction, Winfield said.
The sign initially had incorrect or confusing information, as well, and when officials went to change it, it malfunctioned, Winfield said.
"They had to completely reboot the sign, put in the new language, and put it back up," he said.
By the time the sign was showing correct information, the morning rush was almost finished, he said.
Winfield said officials did not do a "follow through check" of the signage on Sunday after it was first posted, and traffic volumes were low enough over the weekend to not create severe backups.
When Monday morning rush hour, hit, however, they suddenly realized they had a major problem on their hands, he said.
"We took a beating on it, and got the information out there as best we could as quickly as we could," he said.
Shortly after noon, Winfield said crews were out on the highway pulling down the confusing physical signs, and the electronic sign was displaying correct information. Officials were bringing in mobile electronic sign boards with correct information.
Winfield said correct signage was in place as of 4 p.m.
The work is part of a two-year project to replace decking and joints on I-95 and the ramps servicing it. The current traffic pattern is scheduled to be in place through mid-September.
Michele Gilman, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, described the morning scene on the highway as "chaos" in an email, noting confused drivers were cutting through cones after becoming confused as to which side of the split they should be on.
The problems added more than an hour to her commute, Gilman said.
"I've been doing the same commute for 17 years," she said, "and this is the worst I've seen it due to road construction."