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Baltimore seeking solutions to near-daily I-83 crashes 'at the Pepsi sign'

Baltimore officials are seeking solutions to near-daily crashes on I-83 "near the Pepsi sign."

Four separate crashes in Monday's rain on Interstate 83 near the towering Pepsi sign in Hampden snarled traffic repeatedly on the winding elevated expressway that has vexed commuters, police and city officials for decades.

Between 250 and 300 crashes happen each year on the Jones Falls Expressway, according to the city Department of Transportation. The six-lane expressway, which carries I-83 through North Baltimore, handles more than 100,000 cars per day.

The city has commissioned a $65,000 study to examine problem areas on the highway, including the stretch near the Pepsi sign, and determine potential solutions. Separately, the City Council approved a resolution Monday asking Maryland State Police to take over jurisdiction of the highway in the city amid residents' concerns about the strain on city police, who patrol and respond to incidents on the road.

Frank Murphy, the city's acting transportation director, cited the interstate's tight curves, undulations and the sheer number of drivers who commute between the city and the suburbs as the main problems.

"The geometry's a little old, so it's going to have higher crashes per 100,000 vehicles than the Beltway, for example," Murphy said.

The design of the highway, which opened in 1962, was, in fact, a compromise from the start.

City officials wanted to avoid disrupting businesses and neighborhoods, so the roadway was designed to follow the rail line through the Jones Falls Valley and elevated in stretches above the stream itself. It was designated an interstate in 1956 for the purposes of acquiring more federal funding for its construction — even though the plans didn't meet interstate design standards.

"We knew the design standards couldn't be met," then-city Public Works Director Bernard L. Werner told The Baltimore Sun in 1968. "But we had to weigh the costs of moving industry out of the valley against the costs of not designing to interstate standards."

"Where we could widen out, we did. Whatever we could get without condemning industry, we got," Werner added. "Some of the curves aren't suited for 60 miles per hour speed. We needed more land — we couldn't get the property."

Graham Young, the city's deputy chief of traffic, said many of the accidents can be chalked up to people driving too fast. The speed limit is 50 on most of the city expressway because of its design.

"I think people just may be used to being able to travel so much faster than the posted speed limit," he said. "The way 83 is designed, that's not always safe. You can't assume 80 is a safe speed just because the speed limit is 50."

Last year, the city hired McCormick Taylor, an engineering firm based in Little Italy, to identify problem areas and recommend solutions. The $65,000 study is underway, and no preliminary findings have been released. Several messages left with company officials were not returned.

Young said the city expects a wide range of recommendations — some it can implement and some it can't.

"We're looking at both short-term, which would be signing improvements, and then long-term, which we don't necessarily have funding for," Young said. The study could recommend "anything from geometric improvements to something with the pavement," he said.

The bulk of the accidents happen in a roughly two-mile stretch between the Cold Spring Lane and 28th Street-Druid Park Lake Drive exits, Murphy said.

A tight curve follows a straightaway just south of Union Avenue in Hampden, home to the former Pepsi bottling plant that is planned for redevelopment for mixed-use retail and residential units.

The plant's 70-foot-high Pepsi sign that overlooks the JFX has become such a landmark in the last 50 years that police, the Department of Transportation and traffic reporters often refer to crashes nearby as simply "at the Pepsi sign."

It even inspired its own parody Twitter account, @i83PepsiSign, which has amassed more than 380 followers.

When the giant neon soda advertisement was erected in 1969 as Pepsi developed the plant, it drew harsh criticism as an eyesore. At the time, one state official called it "that monster." Over the years, it also showed the temperature and time.

But no one's blaming the sign for the accidents.

Young said the Pepsi sign gets a bad name because of its height and size. "Near the Pepsi sign," he said, has become shorthand for anything remotely nearby.

"I think it's just the most visible landmark," Young said. "You could have a mile stretch almost, and people would call it the Pepsi sign."

Pepsi ceased production at the plant in 2011 and moved distribution out to White Marsh late last year, having sold the property to Himmelrich Associates for redevelopment. Sam Himmelrich, the development firm's founder, also said he doesn't think the now-unlit sign is responsible for pulling eyeballs off the road.

"If today it's distracting — and I don't think it is, by the way — it sure would've been more distracting then," Himmelrich said of when it showed the time and temperature.

Over the years, there have been some frightening accidents near the sign. In 2013, a city tow truck driver and a police officer were injured when a vehicle ran into the already crashed vehicle they were assisting. The tow truck driver was knocked off the elevated roadway, falling 25 feet into the storm-swollen Jones Falls, necessitating a water rescue.

In 2011, another officer was sent over the side, falling into the Pepsi parking lot and suffering severe injuries, when a car struck the back of her cruiser while she was helping a stranded motorist in the northbound lanes.

The near-daily crashes don't just injure drivers, crumple cars and cause backups that can stretch for miles between President Street and the Beltway. They divert city police from their patrols when they are called to a crash on the highway, according to William Miller, 76, president of the Northern District Community Council.

"When you pull three cars out of the district at a time," Miller said, "it creates major response problems."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke planned to introduce a resolution Monday calling for Gov. Larry Hogan and State Police Superintendent William M. Pallozzi to "find a way to immediately extend State Police patrols of I-83 into Baltimore City in order to allow the Baltimore City Police Department to focus more of its resources on critical, crime-preventing, neighborhood patrols."

While city police appreciate the gesture, Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said they are "duty-bound" as the nearest agency to respond to any emergency. Even if the jurisdiction were to change, he said, city officers still would respond to I-83 crashes to lend aid, assist in investigations and ensure traffic safety.

"If there is a public safety need, and we can get there faster than any other public safety agency, we're going to get there," Smith said. "When a person gets into an accident at 83 and Chase, or 83 and Northern Parkway, they want somebody in uniform with lights on their car to render aid."

The Maryland State Police said in a statement that its troopers already patrol more than 200 miles of interstate and are "very busy with our current responsibilities."

"We work in support of other law enforcement agencies on a regular basis, but are not seeking additional duties," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, in an email.

Whenever it rains, David Rocah cringes. The 51-year-old senior staff attorney's office at the American Civil Liberties Union overlooks the JFX near the Pepsi sign, and he and his co-workers can hear the squeal of tires and crunch of metal when cars collide.

"It's sickening listening to that sound," he said. "If the pavement is wet, there is almost certainly going to be a crash. My theory is that there's something wrong with the pavement."

The Department of Transportation said the pavement had been tested in recent years and was found to have adequate friction levels.

Sebastian Shriver, 36, was driving on I-83 one rainy day last spring when a car in front of him fishtailed, over-corrected, slammed into a jersey wall, then rebounded, crossed three lanes of traffic and hit a pickup truck parked on the shoulder of the road.

"She went airborne," he said. A police officer later asked him to give a statement.

Shriver, who has since moved to Washington, said he used to take I-83 regularly to visit his parents in Towson.

"It's unreal how often there's accidents there — if you look at the jersey walls there, how chewed up they are," he said.

Brendan Marshall, 30, lives in the city but grew up in Baldwin and takes the JFX two or three times a week. He thinks the expressway needs more signage and speed traps to deter commuters from speeding around bends in the road.

"We need something that warns people: It's wet out, we're expecting ice, or you're just going too fast 'cause there's a turn coming up," Marshall said. "There needs to be a policy change or a way to change drivers' habits in order to slow people down and keep that stretch of 83 safer."

colin.campbell@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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