A dangerously winding, elevated Jones Falls Expressway spilling traffic onto President Street in Baltimore was never the intent of the road’s planners.
The history of Baltimore’s first highway and highest volume road explains why it was built with its harrowing S-curves, which contribute to a crash rate twice as high as comparable Maryland highways, and why it ends so abruptly at the Fayette Street traffic light.
A group of influential Baltimore businessmen, many of whom lived in North Baltimore and the county suburbs, formed the Greater Baltimore Committee and collectively persuaded city and state leaders to build the road in 1955, amid President Dwight Eisenhower’s push for a national highway system.
“The issue was, how do we make sure Baltimore becomes a part or at least a portion of that highway system?” said Don Fry, the group’s current president.
To avoid disrupting businesses and neighborhoods in the Jones Falls Valley, the highway was laid out along the Pennsylvania Railroad line and elevated in stretches above the stream itself. The resulting curves couldn’t — and still can’t — accommodate normal interstate speeds, but it was designated as one anyway in 1956 to qualify its construction for 90 percent federal funding.
The first crash happened within an hour of the highway’s ribbon-cutting.
Six years later, officials already were calling its design obsolete.
“We knew the design standards couldn't be met,” then-city Public Works Director Bernard L. Werner told The Baltimore Sun in 1968. “But we had to weigh the costs of moving industry out of the valley against the costs of not designing to interstate standards.”
“Where we could widen out, we did. Whatever we could get without condemning industry, we got,” Werner added. “Some of the curves aren't suited for 60 miles per hour speed. We needed more land — we couldn't get the property.”
The expressway was meant to merge into another highway — the “East-West Connector,” cutting through Fells Point, Harbor East and Canton, joining Interstate 83 with I-95 on the east side and I-70 on the west. It would have created an “inner ring” of highway, similar to the Beltway, but encircling downtown.
Opponents in city neighborhoods, most notably Highlandtown native and future U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, won a protracted battle against state highway planners, but not before hundreds of houses on the east and west sides of downtown were demolished.
The “Highway to Nowhere,” a seemingly random, disconnected section of Route 40 bulldozed through West Baltimore, is evidence of the doomed project.
“The proposed highway construction was horrendous,” said Julian L. “Jack” Lapides, a former state senator and longtime neighborhood preservationist. “Fortunately, the highway just ended. If it had continued, it would have really devastated Baltimore.”
The “inner ring” was not the only Baltimore transportation initiative that didn’t take off as planned. State officials also had envisioned building out full light rail and metro systems before money and political will dried up, and neither expanded beyond one line.
Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who broke ground on the JFX on Oct. 2, 1956, promised that the expressway would “be of material assistance in reviving downtown Baltimore.” His son, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandoro III, oversaw the extension of the highway from Guilford Avenue to President Street.
Fry said it has succeeded in that mission.
“It still remains a key thoroughfare into Baltimore and is a major connector for the downtown area,” he said. “It provides tremendous access for employees from the suburban areas, which have grown considerably since the 1950s and ’60s, to come into the city as an economic hub.”
But the safety concerns, and the ugly barrier the highway creates between East Baltimore and downtown, has long made it — at least that section of the roadway — a target for demolition, either partly or wholesale.
A decade ago, city developers pushed to raze the elevated stretch, between Chase and Fayette streets, and turn it into a ground-level boulevard that would be more aesthetically pleasing and bridge the divide between downtown and the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
Removing that section alone would have cost an estimated $1 billion, according to a 2009 Baltimore Sun article. Nothing came of it.
Funding would remain the biggest hurdle a decade later, but getting rid of the elevated highway would not be unprecedented.
Other cities have removed theirs in favor of open, green space that better accommodates neighborhoods. With federal government assistance, Massachusetts spent $24 billion to bury Boston’s Central Artery more than a decade ago. Seattle is set to demolish its Alaskan Way Viaduct, which has long carried Route 99 along the city’s waterfront.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who supports tearing it down and peeling away the concrete hiding the Jones Falls, which runs in a culvert underneath, said other cities that have removed highways have seen a decrease in traffic congestion, because people choose other modes of transportation.
“The only way to do it,” Dorsey said, “is to eliminate roads.”