Commuters and other travelers along Interstate 95 in Baltimore should expect heavy traffic congestion during peak travel times for the next eight months, as construction forces a second year of complicated lane closures from Caton Avenue to the Fort McHenry Tunnel.
The work is part of a two-year, $60 million project to replace worn decking and joints on the 4.4-mile stretch of highway and the ramps that serve it, which are used by more than 200,000 drivers per day.
A total of 13 shifts in traffic patterns last year caused major headaches for commuters, and state transportation officials are warning this year will be far worse — with 29 such shifts scheduled between March 29 and Thanksgiving.
"People need to plan ahead or plan to sit in traffic. It's really that straightforward," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn.
The problems could be so severe that Rahn called on employers in the Baltimore area to allow workers to change their hours to avoid peak travel periods, which are from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
He also encouraged employees to telework and drivers to consider switching to public transit.
Those who must drive should be prepared for changes, he and other officials said.
"We really need people to think of altering times, altering routes and paying attention when they know they need to stay on I-95, so they can be prepared for when and how they need to get off," said Bruce Gartner, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which maintains the stretch of I-95 in question.
The work will require weekly and overlapping changes to traffic patterns on the highway. Such changes last year left drivers confused about how to leave the highway and which lanes to choose in areas where traffic was split to two sides.
The confusion added substantially to the congestion, which on some days turned into hours-long delays.
One day in late August, for example, morning commuters found themselves in a massive traffic jam after overnight changes were made to lanes just north of Caton Avenue and the electronic signs that were supposed to tell drivers how to navigate the new pattern either failed or were incorrect.
One motorist described the morning scene as "chaos," with confused drivers cutting through cones in the area where the highway was split.
"I've been doing the same commute for 17 years and this is the worst I've seen it due to road construction," said Michele Gilman.
Officials say they don't expect any problems with signs this year, but they are concerned confusion could arise again, especially if drivers don't keep abreast of the planned changes on a day-to-day basis.
"The issue for travelers is going to be that these patterns are going to shift relatively quickly," Rahn said. "All of the sudden they aren't going to be able to get to where they are going from the lane they are in. That's why people are going to have to stay on top of what's going on."
Throughout the construction period, officials said, the MdTA and other transportation agencies will be using Twitter to push out regular updates with the hashtag #i95bmore. The MdTA's Twitter handle is @TheMDTA.
The agency also plans to place messages on its electronic signs.
Of the 29 traffic pattern shifts this year, Gartner said, six are expected to have particularly large effects on traffic.
Two of those — one each on the highway's southbound and northbound sides — are to begin a week from Sunday, on March 29.
On the northbound side, lanes are to be split — three to the left and one to the right — from Hanover Street to Key Highway. All traffic exiting from I-95 onto either of those streets will have to use the sole right lane, which will also be receiving all traffic coming onto I-95 from southbound Interstate 395 out of the city.
That pattern will be in place for six weeks, Gartner said.
On the southbound side, the lanes will be split — two to the left and two to the right — from Key Highway to south of the I-395 on-ramp. All traffic exiting from I-95 onto Key Highway will have to get into the far right lane before the Fort McHenry Tunnel. All traffic exiting onto I-395 and Route 295 will have to get into the two far right lanes before the tunnel.
That pattern will be in place for seven to eight weeks, Gartner said.
The other four projects expected to have large effects on traffic are spread through October, with the bulk of the work occurring in the summer months. All depend on weather, officials said.
Despite the disruption to traffic, Rahn said, the construction is the "right work to be done" for the future of the highway. He urged drivers to remain calm in work areas, for their own safety and for the safety of workers.
"Just remember these people are working in the midst of this traffic and it really is dangerous work as a result," he said. "I want to encourage people to be courteous, even though they might be very frustrated."