The idle time we'll while away in rush hour forevermore

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ONCE THERE was hope, and now all hope is gone.

Once there was laughter and blue skies and the trilling of songbirds, but now there is only gloom and despair and endless misery.

Now men with rheumy eyes and The Wall Street Journal folded neatly on the seat next to them stare out the window at great clouds of exhaust fumes and wonder where it all went wrong.

Now women with cell phones at one ear and Starbucks' double lattes in the cup-holder drum their lacquered fingernails on the steering wheel and wonder what vengeful god they've offended in order to be sentenced to such an unbearable existence.

Yes, we're talking about the JFX.

Which is under construction.

Again.

If it sometimes seems to you that the Jones Falls Expressway is always under construction, well, you'd be about right.

Every new project seems to take a minimum of two years to complete, at which point a new two-year project is launched, making it an overall four-year project until the next two-year project begins.

In the best of times, of course, the JFX is a twisting, congested, black-topped strip of hell marked by billboards that offer dubious inspirational messages ("Smoking Stops Here!") and a view of the city that is less than flattering and belongs on the cover of Rust Belt Today.

But these are not the best of times.

No, these are the times when lanes on the JFX suddenly dissolve into a confusing miasma of orange construction barrels and electronic "Road Splits Ahead" arrows.

These are times when bulldozers and cement mixers belch and groan not 10 feet from the tinted windows of your Acura, and the full bucket of a backhoe could careen against your bumper at any moment.

These are times when beefy men with Day-Glo orange and green vests and white hard hats hammer boards and bang pipes in the torpid air, drowning out the reasoned discourse you're getting from Howard Stern on your car radio.

As my friend Peter pointed out, during the last major overhaul of the JFX, in the late '80s or whenever it was, the highway was lined with signs asking motorists for their patience and apologizing for the inconvenience.

A major print and radio campaign also appealed for public understanding and cooperation.

Well, there's none of that warm and fuzzy stuff this time around.

This is the New Millennium, pal, a leaner, harsher time in this country, a time of war and terrorism, of budget cuts and $1.75-a-gallon gas prices and general ill humor.

This time, the unspoken message from transportation officials seems to be: We're tearing up the road. You got a problem with that?

Naturally, it's at rush hour when the full horror of the JFX sets in, when traffic slows to a crawl and tempers flare and things take on all the calm of a hurricane evacuation route.

For some of us who work in midtown and head north at the end of the day, the stress begins just getting to the JFX.

This is because the Madison Street on-ramp is now closed due to construction, to make things even more convenient.

So we follow the detour up the Fallsway, past the cheerful gray walls of the Maryland Penitentiary, where life is grim, sure, where you can get stabbed over a ping-pong game, but at least you don't have to worry about traffic.

Halfway up the Fallsway, we join the scrum of cars attempting to get in the right lane, so that once we make a left on Mount Royal, we'll be in position to make the right onto Charles Street and then squeeze into the far left lane to get to the JFX on-ramp across from Penn Station.

Got all that?

No, I didn't think so.

Stephen Hawking couldn't follow the directions for this detour.

In any event, city transportation officials say this latest "rehabilitation project" of the midtown portion of the JFX will not be completely finished until June.

By "June," they presumably mean next June, although if it were June 2008, no one would bat an eyelash.

Until then, the best way to deal with the whole mess, officials say, is this: Stay off the JFX.

Take alternate routes in and out of the city. Or use mass transit.

Or just drop dead.

OK, they didn't really say that.

But the warm and fuzzy stuff - that is so over.

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