'We just want to see some movement': Baltimore City Council questions transportation officials on traffic jams

Director of the Department of Transportation Michelle Pourciau answers questions regarding Baltimore's traffic congestion and gridlock during a Baltimore City Council hearing.
Director of the Department of Transportation Michelle Pourciau answers questions regarding Baltimore's traffic congestion and gridlock during a Baltimore City Council hearing. (Jay Reed / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello received more than 300 complaints about downtown traffic within a 48-hour period. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke sat at an intersection through three green lights, thinking she’d never make it through. Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s usually five-minute commute to City Hall took four times as long.

City transportation director Michelle Pourciau endured more than an hour of criticism from the City Council Wednesday evening on her agency’s role in exacerbating the already bad congestion in downtown Baltimore. The department recently tried to adjust the timing of lights at some major intersections, and unintentionally set off days of rush-hour gridlock.


The council demanded Pourciau explain how the problems started, and what her department is doing to fix them.

“We just want to see some movement,” Young said.

They could walk faster through downtown Baltimore at rush hour. Commuters say changes to the cycling of lights in downtown Baltimore has turned their journey home each night into an odyssey.

Pourciau told the council that small tweaks to the city’s antiquated traffic control system aimed at improving frequent traffic snarls backfired. Signals ended up out of their “delicate” alignment, she said. That left cars stuck in place, horns blaring, while lights cycled from green to yellow to red and back again.

“We had to unravel what we did and get it back to where it needed to be,” Pourciau said.

The agency has returned the traffic system to “baseline,” she said, or the way it was functioning before the tweaks. Department officials are now working with an “all hands on deck” mentality, she said, and have stationed more traffic enforcement officers at key intersections to help ease cars along more quickly. They’ve also stressed to work crews on city contracts that they can’t close lanes during peak rush hours.

Downtown traffic is now “at a stable place,” Pourciau said.

“What we know is that traffic is flowing better and it’s more like the way it was before we began this process,” she said. “We continue to monitor our activities and to make adjustments.”

The changes to the downtown traffic signals were introduced over a series of weeks, starting on June 15, officials told the council.

Among the handful of days the department implemented tweaks: the Fourth of July.

Drivers in the Baltimore region spend an average of just over 30 minutes commuting each way — the eighth-longest in the country, according to 2017 U.S. Census data. The average commute time is longer than in notoriously traffic-heavy Los Angeles and only a few minutes shorter than in New York.

Pourciau acknowledged that her department made adjustments based on “observations that were flawed” because they were made on the holiday.

Costello said he was “shocked.”

“No one is downtown on July 4,” he said. “They’re not working. It’s common sense that most people aren’t working on a federal holiday.”

Pourciau said officials were driven by the desire to improve traffic congestion before their “Don’t Block the Box” fines begin later this year. City transportation officials plan to penalize motorists who block intersections at red lights.

She said the department doesn't want to be overly punitive with the $125 fines. She said she has talked with the council about improving the “synchronization and optimization” of traffic signals — steps intended to make it less likely a driver will get trapped in the intersection as the light changes from yellow to red.


“We tried that,” she said. “But we couldn't do it.”

Costello said the worst offenders in blocking the box are Maryland Transit Administration buses. During the recent traffic jams, drivers complained that these buses would take up entire intersections and prevent their cars from moving.

Pourciau said the city will begin ticketing MTA drivers if they block intersections during a red light.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Monday introduced legislation that would fine motorists $125 if they block city intersections.

Officials changed traffic signals at 60 intersections, including more than a dozen key crossings downtown. They included Light and Pratt Streets, East Fayette Street and Guilford Avenue, North Charles and East Baltimore Streets.

Nearly 120,000 people work in downtown Baltimore. It’s also the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in the city. Costello said the traffic made it difficult for people to get home or to work.

“I hope this is a lesson learned,” he said. “We look forward to seeing progress. Otherwise we’ll be back here in a couple weeks.”