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Baltimore Traffic Reporter on Congestion After Bridge Collapse

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Baltimore Traffic Reporter on Congestion After Bridge Collapse

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When the Francis Scott Key Bridge was built in the 1970s, it was intended to relieve congestion from the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

Forty-seven years later, some of that traffic will be diverted back to the tunnel after the bridge collapsed last week upon being struck by a giant cargo ship, killing six construction workers. With the rebuilding process expected to take several years, that most likely means years of gridlock for commuters, travelers and truck drivers.

The flow of traffic through and around the city is taking on new patterns and shapes, as the 35,000 cars and trucks that once crossed the Key Bridge’s four lanes try alternative routes. The 1.6-mile bridge was the final link on Interstate 695, which loops around the city and is known as the Baltimore Beltway. The crossing’s overall structure, including its connecting approaches, was almost 11 miles long.

The bridge, a major north-south artery in one of the nation’s busiest ports, had connected working-class communities on either side, and it was used mainly by commuters. A former mayor called it the city’s “blue-collar bridge.”

Most of its local drivers will merge with some of the out-of-town drivers traversing the city through the Harbor Tunnel, on Interstate 895, and the Fort McHenry Tunnel, on Interstate 95, underneath the city’s harbor and closer to Baltimore’s downtown.

As a morning traffic reporter for WBAL News Radio, Tony Thornton will be keeping a close eye on the snarled commutes. Mr. Thornton, who has lived in the area for about 40 years, uses scanners and cameras to get bird’s-eye views of the highways and byways.

He spoke to The Times about the Key Bridge, what drivers are facing and what may be ahead. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What was it like on the morning of the bridge collapse?

I did my first traffic report, probably around 4:05. I figured out that they were detouring traffic off exit ramps prior to the bridge on each side. And I figured out where those points were. So now traffic had to be diverted to the tunnels.

And that’s tricky because the commercial trucks and tractor-trailers that have hazardous materials can’t go through the tunnels. They were used to taking the Francis Scott Key Bridge. So now I have to actually tell truckers the height or the clearance of the tunnel and direct them to the other side of the beltway. You’re talking about an additional 20 to 25 miles just for that.

What have you seen on the roads since then?

An increase in traffic, in the tunnels, especially heading south into the tunnels. And that traffic delay has been starting earlier than usual.

So, typically, we would see a little bit of congestion in the tunnels around 8 in the morning. I’ve seen that now as early as 6 in the morning. It actually almost triples the time it takes for traffic to go through the tunnels.

What I’ve seen on cameras, if you’re heading into the city, approaching the tunnels, is a lot more police presence. Just on the side, just making sure traffic is OK and responding to any accident or incident quickly. You can tell they want to clear the roadway off as quickly as possible, to make sure that traffic continues to flow. It’s a lot, lot quicker than they have been in the past.

Who has been most affected?

A lot of the commercial truckers, a lot of people that work in the ports, a lot of residents that live in that area rely on that bridge. It’s more just workers, folks that are heading to the ports, or folks that are looking to utilize the industry.

And it’s a 24/7 type of industry, too, so it’s always busy. It was just fortunate that at the time of the bridge collapse the Maryland Department of Transportation was able to stop traffic, and it wasn’t as busy at 1:30 in the morning. If that happened an hour and a half later, who knows?

What are you looking ahead to this week?

It was spring break for a lot of the local school districts last week. I’m looking for more of an impact. You already have the normal traffic volume around the beltway. That’s probably going to begin to double now because schools are going to be back.

During a typical school day, I will see traffic starting to build around the Baltimore Beltway around between 6:00 and 6:30. But I anticipate not only having that traffic, but also having additional traffic going through both of the tunnels now, because that’s going to be the way of life.

So now you’re going to have that increased traffic around the beltway, as well as increased traffic in both the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Fort McHenry Tunnel. And, as you know, Interstate 95 comes from New Jersey, down through Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington. It’s all just one big, big, big corridor there.

What’s your advice for drivers?

You’re going to have to plan ahead. If your normal commute takes you 30 to 45 minutes, you may have to leave 10 to 15 minutes earlier than usual because of the traffic delays starting earlier now.

For truck drivers or commercial drivers, just heed the hazardous materials warnings. If you have any type of hazardous materials, they will literally turn you around, and you have to exit onto a side road, and you will not be able to take the tunnels.

Have some patience. It is a very, very scenic ride driving through Baltimore city. You’ll be able to see a lot of the sights, whether you see the stadiums, Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium, you’ll see the skyline of Baltimore. Baltimore is a very beautiful city.

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