A $290 million construction project to replace a large elevated section of Interstate 895 north of the Harbor Tunnel will begin in 2016 and last five years — causing considerable traffic congestion in the process.
The section, known as the Canton Viaduct, was first targeted for replacement years ago, but the project languished amid limited budgets, toll battles and shifting notions on the design for reconstruction.
All those issues have been settled, said the Maryland Transportation Authority — essentially putting Baltimoreans and those who skirt the city via the Harbor Tunnel on notice of commuter headaches to come.
Nearly 70,000 vehicles pass through the Harbor Tunnel every day.
The 60-year-old elevated highway is the MdTA's last piece of infrastructure considered structurally deficient. It requires frequent maintenance and portions need upgrades to meet new highway safety standards, the MdTA said.
While the viaduct's deteriorated deck is what makes it structurally deficient, it has many other problems, including rusted steel, deterioration of its concrete piers, and safety issues related to pull-off areas for police and inspection vehicles. The roadway's shoulders are also not wide enough under current standards.
The work will consist of demolishing and reconstructing a 3,300-foot elevated stretch of the viaduct, replacing the off-ramp down to Holabird Avenue, and repairing tunnel roadway approaches and retaining walls, the MdTA said.
A total of 65 bridge piers will be removed from under the highway section and ramp, and 37 new piers will be constructed. Parts of the viaduct, which passes over city streets and railroad tracks, will be brought onto solid ground through backfilling, eliminating the need for so many piers.
As recently as 2011, the project was estimated to cost significantly less — about $178 million — and was scheduled to start at the end of this year. However, costs have risen, both because of inflation during the intervening period of time and because of changes to the design.
Under the previous plan, the new viaduct would have lasted about 75 years, said Cheryl Sparks, a MdTA spokeswoman. Under the new plan, she said, it's designed to last 100 years and require less maintenance.
Major construction, which will occur day and night, is expected to begin in the fall of 2016 and last through the summer of 2021. Existing lanes will be narrowed from 12 feet to 11 feet and shoulders will be closed.
The early notice — including three public meetings, the first of which was Wednesday — is part of the MdTA's efforts to raise awareness of the project before its impacts are felt, Sparks said.
"We're just committed to having these big projects going out a little bit early to the public, keeping them informed," Sparks said. "It's just trying to get people to know what traffic impacts will be."
The project, now estimated to cost $289.8 million, was one example officials used in arguing for toll increases in 2011, which doubled $2 fares for two-axle vehicles each way at the Harbor Tunnel, the Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Francis Scott Key Bridge to $4 by 2013.
The last toll increase before that was in 2003, when the toll went from $1 to $2 for two-axle vehicles. Drivers with E-ZPass receive discounts on the cash rate.
The viaduct was built between 1955 and 1957 at a cost at the time of $6.6 million.
The bulk of the work will be broken into four stages over four years. During each stage, one of the highway's four lanes will be closed at all times — with a different lane targeted each year.
Based on traffic volumes, two lanes will be designated for southbound traffic and one lane for northbound traffic during morning traffic peaks. In the afternoons, two lanes will be northbound and one southbound.
Maintenance work on the Harbor Tunnel and other sections of I-895 will continue during the viaduct work as well.
While some may worry about the coming work and its potential effect on traffic, Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, reserved judgment.
"Obviously these projects have to be done periodically to maintain the infrastructure," he said. "At this point, it is very difficult to say how trucks might be impacted, but I do appreciate the advance notice being offered by MdTA so that companies can begin preparing as soon as possible."
All efforts have been made to mitigate the impacts on traffic, the MdTA said, but congestion is expected, including for those traveling in the single lane reserved for reverse-peak traffic. Motorists are encouraged to use alternate routes, including the Fort McHenry Tunnel on Interstate 95 and the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Interstate 695.
No construction projects are planned for those alternate routes during the I-895 work, the MdTA said. The work will begin shortly after two years of work on Interstate 95 south of the Fort McHenry Tunnel is expected to be completed.
The next two public meetings on the project will be held at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Patterson High School, 100 Kane St., and at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, at Brooklyn Middle School at 200 Hammonds Lane.