A $23 million makeover of the Charles Street bridge at Penn Station will shut one of Baltimore's busiest roadways for roughly 26 months beginning this summer, launching a siege of heavy demolition, rebuilding -- and frustration, as commuters and businesses grapple with traffic upheaval.
Area merchants complain that plans to temporarily close the crumbling 1911 northbound span at the midtown Amtrak and commuter rail terminal might ruin their businesses, which feed off expressway access and foot traffic.
Still, public officials say the project, for which the city started accepting bids last month, should bless the city's transportation picture and ultimately trigger more commerce.
"I see this as the crown jewel of intermodal transportation," said George G. Balog, the city's director of public works.
The targeted .36-mile bridge and ramps cross the Jones Falls Expressway (which handles roughly 75,000 cars a day in that vicinity) and rail tracks that move 190 passenger trains and light rail cars a day.
About 11,000 cars daily use the JFX's Charles Street ramp and another 11,000 pass the station going northbound on Charles Street. Those figures don't include Charles Street's four bus lines -- Nos. 3, 11 and 31, and the Johns Hopkins shuttle. When complete, there will be an entry lane to the Pennsylvania Station plaza from Charles Street, and a ramp to the JFX from Charles Street. The ramp will also connect to the station driveway so that drivers will gain easier expressway access.
"The new entrances will be much more flexible for us," said
Ken Wiedel, Penn Station's manager for customer service.
The project's estimated $23 million cost is to be split between the federal government and the city. It will complement a wave of area bridge replacements, which between 1992 and 1996 included crossings on Calvert and St. Paul streets and Maryland Avenue. Amtrak also has been recommending unused sections of the 1911 station for conversion as a hotel, and Greyhound Corp. has been exploring building a $12 million bus station at the southeast corner of Charles and Lanvale streets.
"Every part of this project is linked to the other part," Balog explained.
So are streets in this part of Baltimore, a much traversed neighborhood of theaters, schools, bars, restaurants and apartment houses.
Northbound traffic along Charles Street will be routed to Calvert Street and Maryland Avenue. Maryland Avenue, from North Avenue to Mount Royal Avenue, will be converted into a two-way street for the project's duration. Calvert will remain one-way northbound.
Charles Street buses will be routed along Calvert Street north of Mount Royal Avenue.
Balog said he will station traffic control officers along Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue during evening rush hours. "It's crucial that traffic doesn't back up," Balog said.
A few days ago, bridge and structural engineers gathered at Pennsylvania Station to tour the site with city and Amtrak officials.
But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the project. Business owners in the 1700 and 1800 blocks of N. Charles St. are worried that the street at their front doors will become a virtual cul-de-sac.
"Eeeeshh," moaned John Standiford, manager of the Charles Theatre, the film house that is due north of the work site. "The majority of our patrons use I-83 or take 95 and come north on Charles. Having the bridge completely closed would confuse them."
Across the street is Metro Cleaners, which relies on a walk-in and quick-car-stop clientele. "The customer wants convenience. I'm really worried about how they will arrive here. I am a small business and this is not an office building," said its owner, David Shin.
"This has been the forgotten block  of Charles Street," said the Everyman Theatre's producing director Vincent Lancisi. "If it turns out that it's hard for people to get here, the Charles and the Everyman will go dark."
Charles Smith, a resident of the 1700 block of St. Paul St., is also unhappy.
"A city neighborhood is being made to pay the price because of the neglect of the infrastructure. It puts the livelihood of all the merchants in the area in jeopardy."
Engineers said the job presents several challenges. Much of the construction will have to be done late at night so that the majority of Amtrak trains will not be affected. Nearly all the locomotives that call at Penn Station are powered by electricity tapped from 1,200-volt wires suspended on catenary lines under the Charles Street bridge.
Plans are under way to route trains onto alternate tracks when workers are overhead.
Pub Date: 2/03/99