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Sinkholes close Howard, Lexington streets in Baltimore, interrupt light rail traffic

Sinkholes at the intersection of North Howard and West Lexington streets in Baltimore have closed blocks of both streets and interrupted light rail service, officials said Sunday.

North Howard Street is closed between Fayette and Saratoga streets, and West Lexington Street is closed between Eutaw Street and Park Avenue, the city Department of Transportation announced.

The Maryland Transit Administration has suspended light rail service between the North Avenue and Convention Center stations, and is running buses to the affected stations.

It’s unclear what caused the sinkholes — the latest example of the city’s failing infrastructure — but they did not appear to have affected CSX Transportation’s Howard Street Tunnel below, which carries freight trains to and from the port of Baltimore, according to CSX spokeswoman Laura Phelps. A section of East 26th Street above a CSX rail line through Charles Village partially buckled and sank amid heavy rain last week, a near-repeat of a dramatic collapse of a nearby block in 2014.

“We are in contact with MTA and the city,” Phelps wrote in an email Sunday. “We have our track inspectors regularly checking the condition of the tunnel and it is structurally sound.”

The closure of Howard and Lexington streets is expected to stretch into this week, worsening traffic woes due to three-year construction projects under way to replace other aging infrastructure: the 106-year-old Harford Road Bridge in Northeast Baltimore and a 60-year-old Interstate 895 bridge north of the Harbor Tunnel.

The Howard Street sinkholes could not be seen from the street, aside from a dip in the pavement. They were discovered by MTA crews doing track work along the light rail’s Howard Street corridor Saturday, officials said.

“They were concerned that there was a dip there in the street and wanted to see what was going on underneath it,” said Jeffrey Raymond, a Department of Public Works spokesman.

He did not know how large a void existed below the street; the city was working Sunday to clear sediment from a storm drain to lower a camera under the street and get a better look, Raymond said.

While the cause of the sinkhole is not yet known, heavy rainfall like the record 65.7 inches that has pounded the city this year “can definitely be a factor in contributing to a sinkhole,” said Cody Ledbetter, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

In the rainiest year on record, November was the wettest in city history, with 8.14 inches of rain.

“It has a lot to do with under the ground, more than anything,” Ledbetter said. “There’s been a little bit of rain the last few days. Any little bit adds to the already soaked ground.”

The road and light rail will be closed indefinitely as they work, said Kathy Dominick, a Baltimore City Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

“Until we know what it is and what the fix will be, we’re going to have to close the roadway,” she said.

The temporary bus for light rail riders will run between the North Avenue, Mount Royal/MICA, Cultural Center, Mount Vernon, Lexington Market, Baltimore Arena and Convention Center stops. MTA staff will be posted at each station to help let riders know about the service interruption, the agency said.

“The safety of our riders is our first priority,” MTA CEO Kevin Quinn said in a statement. “We look forward to Baltimore City DOT promptly completing these repairs so we can restore full service quickly and minimize the impact on our riders.”

The following detours are in effect, the city transportation department announced:

» Northbound Howard Street traffic will be detoured left on Fayette Street, right on Eutaw Street, right on Saratoga Street back to Howard Street.

» Westbound Lexington Street traffic will be detoured right on Park Avenue, left on Saratoga Street, left on Eutaw Street back to Lexington Street.

» Eastbound Lexington Street traffic will be detoured left on Eutaw Street, right on Saratoga Street, right on Liberty Street back to Lexington Street.

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