A rush hour that was anything but Stall blamed largely on seminar in city


A motivational seminar at the Baltimore Arena is getting much of the blame for forcing rush-hour traffic to a crawl on three major highways yesterday morning, making many unsuspecting commuters late for work.

While 10,000 people headed to the Baltimore Arena for an 8 a.m. seminar on "success with integrity," thousands of commuters trying to enter the city from the south got stuck in miles-long backups on portions of Interstate 95, Route 295 and the west side of the Baltimore Beltway. The delays lasted from roughly 7: 30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

"I don't think it's ever been quite that bad in so many places," said Robert Altman, assistant director of operations at Metro Networks, which provides traffic reports for many radio and television stations.

The State Highway Administration apparently added to traffic problems with a test it performed from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Route 43 at the Beltway in White Marsh. Workers forced vehicles to stop and enter the ramp to the Beltway one at a time, causing some backups and confusion.

"They pick the busiest time of the morning to do this," complained motorist John DiBattiste of North Baltimore.

The agency is testing a plan to install stoplights on ramps to control the flow of traffic entering the Beltway. The test might have delayed motorists by five to 10 minutes but also might have reduced congestion on the Beltway, said state highway spokeswoman Valerie B. Edgar. The results of the test were not available yesterday.

'No reason for it'

For most commuters, the backups had nothing to do with the test on Route 43.

Ruthie Grim was late for her job as a telephone operator for a downtown company because her commute took much longer than usual. "I sat in traffic for an hour and a half," she said. Her drive from Catonsville along the Beltway and I-95 to I-395 into the city usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.

"I saw no reason for it. No one was broken down," she said of the delays.

Many motorists, accustomed to occasional construction or accident delays, were also perplexed -- or just plain angry -- when they found no apparent explanation for the backups.

Most commuters did not know about the seminar at the arena and were not expecting slowdowns, Altman said, adding, "Traffic backs up anytime something happens that Baltimoreans aren't expecting. Something like this is shocking to the average commuter."

Metro's traffic reporters tried to steer motorists to alternate routes, but even those were "packed solid," Altman said. "There was just nothing we could do when the detours backed up."

At various times, traffic south of Baltimore on northbound I-95 was clogged as far south as Route 175 in Howard County, while northbound Route 295 slowed from the Beltway to downtown. Traffic on the west side of the Beltway slowed between I-795 and I-95, according to Altman and motorists.

The magnitude of the jam could not be blamed on major accidents or incidents, state and local traffic officials agreed. "When traffic is just slow, there really isn't much we can do," Edgar said.

Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for Baltimore's Public Works Department, said the seminar at the arena, with events at the Convention Center and elsewhere, flooded city roads with more vehicles than they could handle during peak morning hours. Russell Street carried 20,000 vehicles an hour, double its capacity. "It's like putting twice as much in a funnel -- the funnel can only hold so much," said Kocher.

He also said the city had been told that 3,000 people would attend the seminar, though about 10,000 did. If the city had known so many would attend, Kocher said, officials would have issued a traffic advisory to motorists.

Christine Moore, a spokeswoman for Peter Lowe International, a nonprofit group that sponsored the arena event, said it had publicized the expected crowd of 10,000 in advance.

The daylong seminar, called "Peter Lowe's Success 1998," included speeches by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, Orioles outfielder Eric Davis, news anchorman Tom Brokaw and author Zig Ziglar.

Delays in other cities

Moore said promoters spoke with the mayor's office and local media, encouraging participants to carpool and take mass transit.

Still, she said, she was not surprised by the traffic jam because the seminar has caused delays in other cities.

Seminar attendee Suzanne Rainey said the traffic jam almost tripled what is usually a half-hour drive from Severna Park to Baltimore. She said she spent an hour and 20 minutes in her car.

Tom Cesky, who also came from Severna Park, attributed the tie-ups to the combination of rush-hour and seminar traffic. "I think it was the timing of the [8 a.m.] event," he said.

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann and contributing writer Sheila Hotchkin provided information for this article.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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