Late-night drivers should be forgiven for momentarily thinking they've hit extended rush hour along the Beltway near Charles Street.
A little bit of traffic could turn into a big backup with a State Highway Administration project under way that will close westbound Interstate 695 at Charles starting at 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays.
Closings and detours to install structural steel beams for a new bridge are expected to last about three weeks. They will be suspended on weekends. The overnight closures began this week.
"Anytime you close a road like that, what seems like a little bit of traffic quickly turns into a major backup because it holds a lot of traffic," said Lt. Jim DeWees, commander of the Golden Ring Barracks with the Maryland State Police.
The closures will start at 8 p.m. with a single lane followed by a second lane at 10 p.m. The remaining lanes will close from 11 p.m. through 5 a.m. Flaggers will direct traffic.
"It's necessary to do this when you're putting up steel beams that have to be hoisted into place and secured," SHA spokesman Charlie Gischlar said. "It's a very active work zone, so we want people to slow down through there, obey the signs and don't be distracted."
Traffic will be diverted at Exit 25 to the Charles Street interchange and the roundabout at Charles and Bellona Avenue before rejoining Beltway traffic beyond the bridge area. The eastbound Beltway will have two lanes closed, and the ramp from northbound Charles to the westbound Beltway will be detoured through the roundabout.
Officials don't expect major delays but SHA engineers will reopen lanes if traffic gets too backed up, but officials said they do not anticipate problems. The same lanes were closed in the fall of 2009 when SHA needed to do steel beam work. Officials said the process went well then.
The work is part of the SHA's $43.6 million project to replace the half-century-old Charles Street bridge with a modern, wider structure. The project is expected to be completed in the summer of 2012.
"To measure it qualitatively, I don't think it gets too terrible," Gischlar said of the traffic. "It's probably way less than a mile at that time of night."
Fran Ward, an SHA community liaison for Baltimore and Harford counties, said, "In this case, because of the roundabout, we can send people through the interchange and right back."
Delinda Petrucci, president of the York Manor Improvement Association, said she got an email about the project a little more than a week ago. She said that residents haven't complained at all about the project.
"In the long run, they know it's something that has to be done. It is an inconvenience to each one of us, but we know it's for the greater good," said Petrucci, who lives about a half-mile from the work zone. "It's good they will do it at night."
Jim Boro, who lives within walking distance of the project in Lutherville, said he's looking forward to its completion.
"Another year of inconvenience won't be so bad to make it better," Boro said.
Approximately 180,000 vehicles travel that intersection daily, according to SHA officials. Businesses in the immediate vicinity, including the Baltimore Board of Realtors and medical offices, will not be affected because of the hours of the closure. Employees at 24-hour operations, such as Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said they don't expect much impact either, since they have fewer people at work during that time.
"The exit isn't closed, so you can still get off. You just have to navigate any cones," GBMC spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said.
Traffic in that area usually trails off between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., DeWees said. Troopers will be posted along both sides of the Beltway to ensure quick response times.
The shutdown will inconvenience some, but not for long, he added. "They will get through the detours rather quickly."
Project details include:
•Reconfiguring the two-way access road from Bellona Avenue extended to westbound I-695 and northbound Interstate 83, which will separate the local traffic to businesses from the ramp traffic.
•Removing the roundabout at the Charles Street and Bellona Avenue intersection and construction of a new traffic signal and turning lanes.
•Architectural treatments and ornamental lighting on the bridge to distinguish it as a gateway to the Lutherville community and the Charles Street corridor.