Getting out of downtown Baltimore is getting even harder - starting today.
At 5 a.m., the city is imposing a split traffic pattern on the northbound Jones Falls Expressway to create a work zone in the middle of two lanes - a step that essentially marks the halfway point in the first major reconstruction of the midtown portion of the highway since it was built 41 years ago.
The primary route into and out of downtown for thousands of workers, the JFX has become a vital link between the city and its suburbs. The number of vehicles using the highway increased 62 percent in the past decade to 109,000 daily. The reconstruction will ease bottlenecks, but getting there hasn't been easy.
City transportation officials are lowering the speed limit today on the downtown stretch to 40 mph, though they may not have to worry about speeding given the expected traffic delays. With the road forking and the lanes narrowing, motorists are likely to take it slow.
Officials hope some drivers stop taking it altogether. They are urging people to avoid the JFX and take alternate routes or public transit until January, when the lane split from Chase to Charles streets will return to normal. But the entire $12.5 million reconstruction project, which runs a mile between Eager and Howard streets, will not be finished until June.
Crews, which have demolished 30-foot retaining walls on the side of the highway and built ones farther back, will turn their attention to ripping up the concrete roadway, pouring a 10-inch-thick layer of concrete, then covering it with 5 1/2 inches of hot-mix asphalt. The road will also get new signs and lighting.
The work is long overdue, officials say.
"Have you driven it?" asked Frank Murphy, the city's chief traffic engineer. "It's 40 years old and beat to hell."
With its hairpin turns, tight lanes and pockmarked surface, the JFX is every driver's nightmare - or every racer's fantasy. The worst portion of the road, between Eager and Howard streets in midtown, opened in 1962 and hasn't been improved since.
The city began the reconstruction of that section in November - an event many motorists will remember because it meant a southbound lane was closed at Maryland Avenue, causing big delays back to the Baltimore County line. This new diversion will be the final major traffic headache for motorists.
When the entire reconstruction is finished, the highway will offer three through lanes in each direction with wider shoulders and softer curves. By acquiring unused train tracks and widening the road near Penn Station, the city was able to flatten one of the road's most notorious curves.
The addition of a third through lane on the southbound side of the road from Howard to St. Paul streets could increase capacity by 50 percent, but officials aren't promising that delays will become a thing of the past, just that they'll move somewhere else.
"This will no longer be the bottleneck," Murphy said. He said the 66,000 vehicles a day that use the midtown portion of the road should move smoothly all the way to the end at Fayette Street, where a traffic light will become the new bottleneck.
After the southbound side's delays mounted last winter, officials took three steps to increase traffic flow. Instead of having three lanes merge into two at the North Avenue exit, the city made the right lane an exit-only lane, forcing people to merge sooner. They also closed the 29th Street entrance ramp to the JFX, reducing the number of cars on the road. And they pushed York Road and Park Heights Avenue as alternates.
The northbound split that starts today will continue for half a mile to Charles Street. Officials said buses and trucks must use the right lane because it will be about 13 feet wide, 2 feet wider than the left lane. A typical highway lane is 12 feet wide.
The jersey barriers that will be hard up against the lanes and the sharp turns in that half-mile of road make driving treacherous. Highway officials said they try to avoid splitting lanes, but sometimes there's no choice.
"It's one of the worst work zone setups possible because of driver confusion," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration. "It's the decision point of which way to go that slows people up as they approach. And when you have a barrier on both sides of you, it's like a tunnel feeling, and really there's no place to go."
The city has made plans to clear broken-down cars from the travel lanes as quickly as possible since there will be no shoulder on the mile of the JFX being reconstructed. A tow truck will be stationed at the work zone 24 hours a day, ready to clear stopped cars.
"If somebody breaks down in one of those single lanes, that lane is closed. You're stuck," Murphy said.
The city has closed four en- trance and exit ramps as part of the reconstruction. The recent closure of the Madison Street entrance ramp to the northbound JFX has been particularly troubling to downtown workers. During peak hours, about 1,200 cars per hour used that ramp to get onto the highway. They are now detoured to Charles Street.
The Madison Street ramp is to reopen in January, along with the southbound Maryland Avenue exit. The 29th Street and North Avenue southbound entrance ramps will remain closed until June.
Officials said the nearly two-year timetable for the project is about normal given all the structural work that had to be done before they could begin working on the roadway. Besides moving back retaining walls, the city replaced or adjusted nine bridges that carry roads across the expressway.
"That road's 40-some years old, and it needs to be rehabilitated," said Dan Zimmerman, the construction project supervisor. "It's pretty much beyond its life."
Some regular JFX commuters said they don't mind the work as long as the payoff is worth it. They said congestion has lessened since the city took steps to relieve the bottleneck at North Avenue in the winter.
"The construction is prevalent, but at least it seems manageable. Before, it was like, 'Why don't they just shut down the expressway?' " said Steven Norwitz, a vice president at T. Rowe Price Associates who lives in Owings Mills and works on Pratt Street. "I'm looking forward to the day they complete it, whenever that is."