JFX turns 50: Baltimore's six-lane Main Street

JFX turns 50: Baltimore's six-lane Main Street
On the first day of two-way traffic on the only open stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway, this car failed to complete the trip. Gustav Fisher, 57, of the 100 block of North Montford Ave, was taken to Union Memorial Hospital with lacerations after his car left the roadway at Reservoir Street. (Baltimore Sun)

Hours after a ribbon-cutting ceremony 50 years ago, the Jones Falls Expressway had its first pileup and subsequent traffic snarl.

Some things never change.

The JFX is the road we love to hate but can't live without, the city's Main Street where everyone has a tale to tell.

Shannon Mullaney met her husband on the JFX. The soundtrack of David Rocah's workday is often provided by the southbound lanes right outside his office window. Steve McDaniel's bees thrive in the shadow of the roadway and produce a flavorful honey.

With more than 100,000 cars using it daily, the JFX is Baltimore's highest-volume road, its central artery.

"It's hard to believe there was a time when the JFX wasn't there," says former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, who championed an extension of the expressway into downtown and whose father, the mayor in 1956, broke ground for the road.

The 9.7-mile expressway brought the city and suburbs closer together, nourishing a wedge of prosperity — and providing an exodus route for thousands of families seeking bigger yards and better schools.

"It helped shape the modern city and shaped development around it. Lutherville, Timonium, Hunt Valley would never have grown to the level they did without it," says Frank Murphy, the city's deputy transportation director, who remembers playing with scrap metal from the then-unfinished Northern Parkway interchange in the early 1960s.

But without the expressway bringing office workers south each day, "the region would be centered on the Beltway and downtown would be something like Camden, N.J.," says Charles Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a neighborhood planning and development nonprofit group. "The JFX kept us in the game."

Instead of becoming a blighted shell like Camden, others say, Baltimore could have faced a different kind of urban nightmare without the expressway.

"Baltimore without the JFX would be a hodgepodge of streets, all filled with trucks. Trucks in every neighborhood. Imagine that. It would be awful," D'Alesandro says.

Duff goes further: "Without the expressway, we would have cooked Charles Village, Mount Vernon, Station North and downtown itself in traffic. It would have been impossible to sustain and grow good neighborhoods."

Now, the expressway appears to be bringing people back to city neighborhoods to live. Murphy says the increase in traffic volume is actually growing faster for "reverse commuters" than traditional inbound-in-the-morning and outbound-at-night travel. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has made it a goal to get 10,000 families to move into the city during the next decade.

"More and more people are living in Canton, in Fells Point, in Hampden and working in the suburbs," Murphy says.

Adds Duff: "What it shows is that the downtown is working, that the downtown is becoming a desirable place to live for childless couples."

Early plans

Talk of an expressway began during World War II. By 1951, city planners had sketches to show voters, who a year later approved $10 million toward the road. Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. promised that the highway would "be of material assistance in reviving downtown Baltimore."

The original concept included bus pull-offs and a transit line down the center of the road. To avoid uprooting industry and destroying entire neighborhoods, the JFX was placed in the Jones Falls stream valley, in the footprint of an older roadway. Nonetheless, communities such as Ruxton and Roland Park howled at the thought of a six-lane highway running nearby.

From groundbreaking to completion of the first three miles — Charles Street at Oliver to Falls Road — the project took nearly five years. The Sun hailed it as a "superhighway" and noted that motorists "were cautious and even timid … few maintained the 50 mph speeds which are allowed."

The next day, an ice storm baptized the pavement and sparked a variety of urban lore that gets enriched every winter.

"If there's an accident on the JFX, you hear about it. If there's one on York Road, probably not," says Murphy.

After the initial fanfare, the expressway continued to open in pieces: a half-mile sliver extended the road south to Biddle Street in the spring of 1962. That fall, Cold Spring Lane to the Baltimore Beltway opened, with Gov. J. Millard Tawes proclaiming it to be "one of the most important features a community needs these days."

The JFX was long envisioned as extending south from Fayette Street to connect with I-95 and I-70. But citizen opposition and cost dead-ended the project.

In the 10-year period ending last year, the JFX in Baltimore has been the scene of more than 2,200 reported accidents, 10 fatalities and nearly a dozen pedestrian injuries, according to state police and city statistics.

Yet, "if you know when to hit it, it's a convenient and pretty effective way to get downtown," says Dave Sandler, who has covered traffic for 25 years for WBAL radio. "I think it's held up pretty well over a half-century."

With more stringent environmental laws and interstate standards to meet and a citizenry capable of mobilizing and being heard, the JFX could not be built today — and certainly not for the $68 million it cost, Murphy says.

Looking ahead

Over the years, people have contemplated life without the JFX, or at least a portion of it. Civic activists and urban planners have promoted plans to replace the southernmost mile of the elevated road with an at-grade boulevard. The cost: $1 billion.

"What's the point?" asks Murphy, the deputy transportation director. "You'd have a lower-capacity road. You'd have more delays. You'd push traffic into neighborhoods like Mount Vernon. People would have to use roads that were used 50 years ago."

With literally nowhere else to go, the city continues to tweak the JFX, replacing guardrails with concrete barriers and adding shoulders where it can. New electronic signs will be added to either end of the road to advise motorists of major accidents ahead. Other signs will warn drivers to slow down at especially dangerous areas.

That last improvement can't come soon enough for David Rocah, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. He has a front-row seat from his second-floor office window at Clipper Mill Road near the Pepsi plant.

Every time it rains, he says, his office window transforms into a flat-screen TV showing a demolition derby competition.

"I get a sick feeling every time I hear tire screeching and metal crunching. It's only a matter of time before someone gets killed," he says.

It's gotten so bad that he and colleagues are taking notes and photos of every accident they see.

Happy trails

Not every JFX story ends with congestion or twisted metal. Some contain a touch of sweetness.

Beekeeper Steve McDaniel has beehives tucked near the roadway. The bees collect pollen from dandelions and clover in parks and vacant lots and basswood trees along city streets. They produce a dark, citrusy honey McDaniel calls "Baltimore Wildflower."

"It shows you that cities can be vibrant in many ways," he says.

Shannon Mullaney was a young officer worker on her way home eight years ago when she had a fender-bender with another vehicle. The other driver was handsome and kind, which made the crumpled metal and cracked plastic almost bearable. Afterward, Mullaney decided to calm her nerves with a drink at the Mt. Washington Tavern. Sitting at the bar? The guy she'd just met.

"We dated for a year and got married. We divorced two years ago," she said while getting a coffee at the Mount Washington Starbucks on her way to her new home in Pennsylvania. "I don't have the guy, but I still have the story."

Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.