Attention, JFX commuters: Make plans for Monday

Chances are many Baltimore commuters will spend the weekend poring over maps, checking out city byways and back streets, and dreaming of something that may not exist come Monday morning's rush hour: a clear shot into downtown.

The Jones Falls Expressway as we know it disappeared Friday evening, with one lane closed in each direction near 29th Street by barrels and barriers, and marked with flashing signs and arrows. It may stay that way for up to two months while crews conduct emergency repairs to damaged drainage pipes and bolster the highway's underpinnings.

Taking away the two left lanes will reduce traffic flow by at least a third on Baltimore's highest-volume artery.

What will compound the frustration is that drivers won't see any work for a few weeks. Construction won't begin until the contract is awarded toward the end of April. The barriers were set up as a safety precaution because of a feared sinkhole, said Frank Murphy, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation.

There is no magic formula to navigating the congested roads ahead.

"The JFX isn't very pleasant in the first place," said Susan Walters, who lives in northern Baltimore County and works at Catholic Relief Services in the city. "People are going to be surprised."

A cool head, trial and error, and, yes, time, may salve all. But just in case, city engineers outlined nine alternate north-south routes — roads that used to carry the city's workforce between the suburbs and downtown before the expressway. They even offered turn-by-turn driving instructions.

The routes, west to east, are Liberty Heights Aveue, Reisterstown Road, Park Heights Avenue, Charles Street, York Road, Loch Raven Boulevard, Perring Parkway, Harford Road and Belair Road.

The step-by-step directions should help the thousands of people who weren't driving 25 years ago — the last time the road underwent a major construction project.

"All we're getting is calls from people who say they don't know any other way but the JFX," said Adrienne Barnes, a transportation department spokeswoman. "People are creatures of habit. They know one way and they're comfortable."

There are worries, too, that commuters may cling to their old ways, betting that enough drivers will take alternate routes to reduce the volume on the JFX, which usually handles 6,000 vehicles an hour at peak times.

"If enough people get off the JFX, there won't be a problem. If enough people don't get off, we'll have a problem," Murphy said.

City officials and AAA Mid-Atlantic are urging commuters to take the Metro subway, which runs from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital, or the light rail, which connects Hunt Valley to downtown.

"They've got a lot of capacity," Murphy said. "They can handle whatever we dish out."

Commuters are beginning to sort through their options.

"I'm a little nervous to rely on light rail, but I'm terrified to be in that congestion because there's no doubt it's going to be a mess," Walters said. "I think I'll probably be a hybrid, using light rail when I don't have family obligations."

The Downtown Partnership has emailed notices to 2,000 businesses and individuals, spokeswoman Megan Isennock said.

"It's been quiet so far, but I think once the barrels are in place and people see them, there may be some backlash," she said.

Ragina Averella, spokeswoman for AAA, suggested commuters use this weekend to review the alternate routes, print them out and take a dry run if possible.

"I'm a firm believer in that, particularly if you're leaving the only route you know for something you don't," she said. "It can give you added confidence."

A State Highway Administration project manager noticed a dip in the road a year ago and contacted city officials. Engineers used ground-penetrating radar as well as visual inspections — they crawled down into manholes —to assess the situation.

"Once we had an understanding of the extent of the problem, we had to decide whether to make a temporary repair or go for a more permanent solution. We decided to go in and do it right," Murphy said.

Crews will have to remove the median to dig down to two collapsed concrete pipes, one 61/2 feet below and the other 21 feet under.

The project, which could cost $1 million, will replace collapsed pipes and clear undamaged ones, install liners to shore up misaligned pipes and fill areas eroded by water.

Averella suggested using flex time or asking an employer if telecommuting is an option.

But if working from home isn't possible, Averella had this advice: "Leave enough time — at least an extra half-hour or 45 minutes at first to see how it goes, and be flexible and patient."

Murphy believes commuters will adapt quickly.

"Before the week's out, things will calm down and people will sort things out," Murphy said. "Traffic is like water. It finds its own level."