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Construction on I-895 in Baltimore to cause major traffic problems for the next three years

The commutes of tens of thousands of people will be disrupted for the next few years as Maryland replaces the Interstate 895 bridge north of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

The Maryland Transportation Authority plans to limit that part of the expressway to one lane in each direction starting later this month for the $189 million project to replace the 60-year-old bridge.

The northbound lanes of I-895 will close from the tunnel to O’Donnell Street on Nov. 27 — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving — and the two southbound lanes will be converted to two-way traffic through spring 2020. Once the northbound span has been rebuilt, it will carry two-way traffic through spring 2021 while the southbound span is replaced.

“This is going to have a significant impact on people’s travel,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said. “People are going to notice.”

The state is recommending people use Interstate 95 or the I-695 beltway as an alternative to I-895 unless they need to reach one of its exits. The Holabird Avenue exit ramp from the bridge also will be replaced — and closed during the project, disrupting truck traffic to the port of Baltimore and warehouses such as Amazon’s in the area.

Unless 40 percent of the 79,000 drivers who take I-895 each day use an alternative route, Rahn said, “we’re going to see a lot of unhappy people.”

The project also includes $28 million in repairs and upgrades to the Harbor Tunnel, which will be completed during 60-day, continuous closures of each of its bores: the northbound one in spring 2019, and the southbound in spring 2020. Two-way traffic will operate in the opposite bore during each closure.

The bridge replacement was first announced in December 2017 and work has already begun, with foundations being laid at the base of the bridge to support the new one, said Kevin Reigrut, executive director of the MdTA, which operates and maintains the state’s tolled bridges, tunnels and roads.

Anticipating the additional traffic on I-95 and the beltway, the state waited until it completed a $49.4 million expansion of I-95 to four lanes from the Fort McHenry Tunnel to Moravia Road in October before starting the I-895 project. It also spent $20 million to rehabilitate I-695’s Curtis Creek Drawbridge, which is expected to reopen to traffic Nov. 20.

How safe are Maryland's bridges? »

“Nationwide we hear the conversation about infrastructure,” Reigrut said. “The difference is, here in Maryland, we’re doing something about it.”

While it is not considered unsafe to drive over, the I-895 bridge has been deemed structurally deficient, Rahn said. The state installed plywood panels underneath it to catch any chunks of concrete that fall from the bottom before they land on cars on the roads below, he said.

The state has spent roughly $1.5 million in each of the past four years on patching and other repairs to the bridge, which also passes over a tangle of railroad tracks and rail yards that serve the port.

“If you just leave it alone, the bridge would reach a point where it would not be safe,” Rahn said. “It would be irresponsible to allow it to continue.”

Tutor Perini, a California-based general contractor, will do the work, which also includes relocating a railroad parking lot under the bridge and improving the approaches to the tunnel.

The bridge replacement has required immense coordination with the railroads and other stakeholders, officials said. The Maryland Department of Transportation will undertake a $235,000 marketing campaign to inform the public of the project’s impacts — including billboards, highway signs, media ads, doorknob hangers and a website to sign up for email and text message updates.

Narrowing the highway to one lane in each direction continuously for three years will cause more traffic headaches than performing the construction work at night or on weekends, Rahn said, but it was necessary to accommodate the railroads and ultimately will allow the new bridge to be built more quickly.

“The approach we have taken on this is designed to get the work done absolutely as quickly as we can,” he said. “We’re going to be out of the public’s way two years faster than it would have been if we had done it with a traditional approach.”

It’s also more cost-efficient and will save the state $40 million, which was used to help pay for the I-95 and Curtis Creek Drawbridge projects, Rahn said.

The project will be a pain for drivers who must take I-895, but in the long run, it’s an investment in the safety of their daily commutes, said Ragina Cooper Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which represents more than 975,000 drivers in Maryland.

“We recognize this will be a long project and that it will certainly impact congestion,” Averella said. “However, it is certainly necessary and critical for the traffic safety of motorists that use that bridge.”

Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said he was “very concerned” about how truckers will navigate the impending bridge closure. I-895 and Holabird Avenue are main access routes to the port of Baltimore.

Drivers heading to the port from I-895 now will need to use the O’Donnell Street exit and pass through the O’Donnell Heights neighborhood.

The motor truck association, which represents 1,000 trucking companies and independent drivers across the state, will hold a conference call Friday about the bridge replacement and other issues with members who carry shipments to and from the port.

“It is a challenge for sure,” Campion said. “And yet, how can you argue against a project because there are structural deficiencies? Road maintenance and preservation is necessary to avoid some of the incidents we’ve seen with infrastructure elsewhere.”

Antonio Scotto, owner of Vinny’s Cafe on Holabird Avenue, was disappointed to hear the project would take three years, but if it means an all-new bridge, he thinks it will be worth the wait.

He’s not too worried about the bridge and Holabird exit ramp replacement hurting business.

“We’re pretty lucky; we get customers from all over,” Scotto said. “When you’ve got good food, they’ll come from any direction they have to.”

Shirley Gregory, president of St. Helena Community Association, said she and her Dundalk neighbors will miss being able to use I-895 as a quicker alternative to the often backed-up I-95 for the next few years, and more traffic makes everyone grumpy.

But the 62-year-old woman has watched the Harbor Tunnel fall into disrepair over the 24 years she has lived in the neighborhood. She said she is excited for more comprehensive upgrades to the tunnel.

“The last thing you want to do is be going through it and have a tile fall on your windshield,” she said. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”

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