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Crash rate on I-83 in Baltimore more than double that of other highways, study finds. How can it be fixed?

The rate of crashes on the Jones Falls Expressway/Interstate 83 in Baltimore is more than twice as high as other comparable Maryland highways, according to a new study. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

The rate of crashes on the Jones Falls Expressway/Interstate 83 in Baltimore is more than double that of comparable Maryland highways — and short-term solutions alone could cost the city up to $4 million, according to a recent study.

An average of nearly 38 crashes per mile occurred on the elevated, winding highway each year between 2010 and 2014, as opposed to about 16 per mile each year on other Maryland highways, according to a $65,000 study commissioned by the city.

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“The alignment of the corridor is characterized by numerous horizontal and vertical curves, several of which are posted with advisory speeds below the speed limit that drivers would anticipate for an interstate roadway,” said the I-83 Corridor Safety Study by McCormick Taylor, a Philadelphia-based civil engineering consulting firm.

High-friction surface treatments, enhanced signage, solid-line lanes to discourage lane changes in turns and pavement temperature sensors could serve as short-term solutions for the near daily crashes on the city-owned highway, according to the study, which was completed in December.

Long-term recommendations included automated speed enforcement, variable speed limits, dynamic message signs, signage upgrades along the entire corridor and closed-circuit TV cameras for better monitoring.

One major issue the consultants encountered in their study of high-crash areas? The JFX lacks regularly posted milepoint markers, so police and the city’s Traffic Management Center are left reporting imprecise crash locations, such as the nearest exit or the Pepsi sign in Hampden.

Milepoint markers stop south of the Howard Street overpass, the study says.

Posting milepoint signs, a key to more precisely evaluating the highway’s worst crash areas, would cost an estimated $104,300, the study said.

Crashes were nearly evenly split between northbound and southbound directions.

Single-vehicle crashes made up more than 40 percent of the total, rear-end crashes accounted for more than a quarter, and nearly 20 percent were side-swipes, according to the study.

The highest percentage of crashes in any one hour of the day, 7.5 percent, happened in the 2 a.m. hour, the study said, and most others happened during the typical morning and evening commutes.

The crashes did not directly align with the volume of traffic, the study said, “suggesting that high volume conditions [congestion] are not a clear indicator of crash likelihood.”

Baltimore Department of Transportation officials said in 2017 that drivers speeding on the curvy roadway, not slick pavement, were to blame for the high rate of crashes.

The consultants agreed that high speeds were an issue and said better signage could help. The asphalt is generally in good condition, with many sections appearing to have been recently resurfaced, they said, and some of the concrete needs minor repair, “particularly at joints.”

But their top recommendation — high-friction surface treatments — would improve the condition of the roadway.

Nearly 42 percent of crashes happened with wet or snow-covered pavement, the study said.

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The sharp turn at Penn Station, near the Guilford Avenue exit, had more than half of its crashes in wet conditions, 55 percent, the study said.

That curve was one of four that McCormick Taylor and the city Department of Transportation identified as candidates for high-friction surface treatment, a skid-resistant layer of pavement that helps drivers maintain better control in wet and dry conditions.

The curves south of Cold Spring Lane, near the 41st Street overpass (the Pepsi sign) and north of Falls Road were the others that could receive the treatments, estimated to cost a collective $1.96 million, according to the study.

Contrast pavement marking, which would make lane lines and other markings more visible against the light-colored concrete, could cost $1.4 million.

The report did not list the estimated costs for long-term improvements.

The transportation department “is dedicated to ensuring the safety and mobility of all motorists traveling on I-83,” spokesman German Vigil said in a statement.

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“This study helps us identify ways to improve safety measures, enhance transit service, improve traffic, and protect surrounding residential streets from traffic impacts,” he said. “The results of the study will be used in programming short- and long-term solutions to vehicular issues within the study area.”

The word “transit” does not appear anywhere in the study, and Vigil did not respond to a follow-up question about how it would be improved.

Melissa Schober, who takes I-83 to drive her daughter to school in Medfield from their home in Harwood, wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“To anyone who is surprised by the fact that they confirmed our many crashes: Congratulations, your powers of observation are thrilling,” she said. “I wish it was different. I think it was a pretty poorly built highway.”

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey noted that other measures, such as reducing the number of lanes on the JFX or knocking down the highway altogether, “were not even put on the table.”

“However anybody feels about it as a decision to do something like that, there’s no doubt that’s an option and it would improve safety,” he added. “Those are the kind of forward-thinking and big-picture thoughts we can’t afford to have missing wholesale when we’re dealing with climate disaster.”

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