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Downtown road work, detours galore driving commuters crazy

Commuter traffic in Baltimore is nothing new, of course, but a handful of critical road closings has exacerbated the morning and evening rush hours to new levels of exasperating.

Tweefie Millspaugh has a relatively short commute from her home in North Baltimore's Abell neighborhood to her job at a downtown law firm. Without traffic, she says, it takes about 15 minutes.

But lately, the 54-year-old has found herself yelling fruitlessly in the driver's seat as she sits for 45 minutes on streets jammed by road closures across the city's center. After work, she waits again in a crawling line before finally inching out of her parking garage and into the gridlock.

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"It's been horrible," Millspaugh said. "There's strangling construction everywhere."

Baltimore's morning and evening rush hours have reached new levels of exasperating because of what the city's transportation chief calls a perfect storm of infrastructure failures and other projects.

Emergency utilities work has caused some of the biggest headaches. Two street collapses into a century-old sewer line have closed sections of three consecutive thoroughfares — Centre, Franklin and Mulberry streets — for months on the west side of downtown.

The city closed the westbound lanes of a fourth, West Saratoga Street, due to concerns that another collapse could occur over the same sewer there.

"In my 42 years here, we've never had four parallel streets into the city closed at the same time," said Frank Murphy, who became acting director of the city transportation department in May.

Traffic cones line other major arteries for various reasons.

Lanes of Baltimore, Light and Calvert streets are closed to provide covered pedestrian walkways past building construction projects. Renovation of the Preston Gardens park is closing Upper St. Paul Place between Franklin and Saratoga.

Bicycle lanes are being installed on Maryland Avenue, while buses-and-bikes-only lanes have been painted on Lombard and Pratt streets, further bottlenecking commuter traffic.

And BGE has been installing underground electric cables along Centre Street for nearly a year, part of an "electric reliability project" that spokesman Justin Mulcahy called "imperative, critical work."

Such necessary improvements carry with them a risk of dampening economic enthusiasm because of the resulting traffic problems.

More than 100,000 people work within a mile of downtown, according to a 2015 report by the Downtown Partnership. Many of them come from the suburbs. Over 200,000 workers commute to somewhere in the city from neighboring counties, among the highest numbers in the nation, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2013.

Commuters generally understand the need for infrastructure improvements, said Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business and civic leaders.

But the projects must be balanced with making sure people can get to and from their place of work, or the gridlock could potentially have long-term economic impact, he said.

"I think there's a recognition of need to address infrastructure challenges, but I think people would like to see it done in a coordinated way," Fry said. "Other East Coast cities have similar problems, and they find a way to do it so there's as little distraction as possible."

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Murphy says the transportation department has done what it can to alleviate the traffic mess. Officials have restricted parking to add a lane on streets where another lane is closed. They've re-timed traffic signals, deployed traffic officers and added turn lanes to allow better flow through problem intersections.

Wherever possible, the city keeps streets open by mandating that work be done at off-peak hours and placing large metal plates over holes in the road, Murphy said.

Proximity to residences and hotels, however, can require the work be done during the daytime because of the noise it creates.

The plates, a temporary fix that make for a bumpy ride and can wreak havoc on vehicle tires and suspensions, aren't much more popular with drivers than the ever-present traffic cones.

"People complain about how many plates they drive over," said Graham Young, the city's deputy chief of traffic. "But if the plates weren't there, the lanes would be closed."

The city also does its best to schedule road closures on nights and weekends, and to avoid Orioles and Ravens games and other large events, Murphy said.

That's little condolence to Seth LeBlond, property manager at the World Trade Center, who has commuted to the Inner Harbor from Bowie for 12 years. When conditions are good, the trip takes half an hour. Now, just getting across town takes longer than that.

The 56-year-old has seen some bad construction situations in past years, but the Pratt Street crawl "is really bad" this time.

The bike and bus lanes on Pratt and Lombard streets have restricted traffic flow, and the street collapses have dumped additional traffic from the closed roads into the already-crowded major downtown thoroughfares.

"On Russell Street, when we see the 'Welcome to Baltimore' sign," LeBlond said, "I know there's 40 minutes to go."

Autumn Fares, who lives in Hampden, has always skipped the morning Interstate 83 traffic by taking Falls Road to Maryland Avenue to her job downtown as an analyst at TransAmerica.

It used to take 10 minutes, she said. One morning last week, it took 45.

"It's not normally like that at all," said Fares, 38. "There's traffic, but at least it moves.

She said the new Maryland Avenue bike lanes and road closures caused by construction projects are to blame.

Lindsay Eyzaguirre, a researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, says getting out of the city during the evening rush takes longer than the rest of her drive home to Elkridge on Interstate 95.

And that's even though "I live 10 miles away," said Eyzaguirre, 36.

An abundance of planning, both within and between agencies, is the best way to ease traffic pains stemming from the various projects in any city, said Lei Zhang, director of University of Maryland's National Transportation Center.

If a street must close for emergency work, Zhang said, the best practice is to evaluate whether the problem extends up the street and to consider preventive repairs so the issue doesn't emerge on another block.

"If we have a work zone now to repair a segment of Pratt Street," he said, "we might as well do the entire Pratt Street."

If more than one agency can do work on the same street while it's closed, Zhang said, keeping the road closed longer is generally better than closing it multiple times.

The Department of Public Works and Baltimore Gas and Electric have both finished jobs on the collapsed section of Centre Street, between Park Avenue and Cathedral Street in Mount Vernon.

That stretch of road is expected to reopen next month. The section of Franklin Street that was closed to build a sewer bypass for the Mulberry Street collapse should reopen this week, the Public Works Department said.

The closed sections of Mulberry and Saratoga streets are expected to reopen to traffic in January.

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In that time, crews will clean out the 6-foot sewer line that runs below those streets and fortify it with a cured-in-place pipe inside the damaged pipe, DPW spokesman Jeffrey Raymond.

"Rather than just make it a quick fix and get in and out as quickly as we can, we changed our mindset in recent years so we're doing it right, doing it thoroughly," Raymond said. "Rather than just patch the hole on Centre Street or patch the hole on Mulberry, realizing this is an entire system and making a long-term fix."

In any city, especially one like Baltimore with aging infrastructure, a certain degree of road work is inevitable.

"Residents are not going to be happy about it, businesses are not going to be happy about it, but it's a necessary thing to do," Zhang said.

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