On Thursday night, all but a single lane of the Jones Falls Expressway near the 29th Street exit will be closed, signaling the start of a $2 million project to replace crushed drainage pipes and to shore up the soil that supports the crucial thoroughfare for commuters and residents.
All northbound lanes will be closed each night from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. between this Thursday and Monday. Also, on Thursday, only one southbound lane will be open from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. After this week, transportation authorities will alternate northbound and southbound overnight closures as needed throughout the road reconstruction project to keep traffic flowing.
The Baltimore Department of Transportation closed the highway's left lanes in both directions last month because of concerns that collapsed drainage pipes could result in a sinkhole. The late-night closures are needed to let contractors dig under the roadway to examine the extent of the pipe damage.
The project's price tag has doubled since city officials announced the need for emergency repairs last month on Baltimore's busiest roadway.
Councilman Nick Mosby of the 7th District, an area that includes parts of the expressway and some surrounding neighborhoods, said that "the fact that they still haven't been able to pinpoint the entire problem is definitely a major issue, and one that's concerning."
"It seems that we're finding out that the problem is bigger than we could ever imagine, so hopefully we can find a solution as soon as possible," Mosby said.
Tests indicate erosion has created craters under the road surface, the largest about the size of a basketball.
"The soil is what's holding up the road," said Frank Murphy, the city's deputy transportation director, on Tuesday. "Motorists were never in danger, but we got to the point that we didn't want to take a chance."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of the 14th District, who usually takes the JFX into the city, said she was not surprised by the news that the problem may be greater than anticipated.
"When they started talking about erosion under main pillars, I'll be honest with you, my first thought was: 'Thank God we found it. Thank God we're closing [the lanes] before some tragedy occurred,'" she said. "My first concern is the safety of the drivers, and I think we are doing what we have to do, inconvenient though it is — and expensive."
The duration of the project depends on how much damage is found. Officials believe the work could take two months.
The JFX typically handles more than 100,000 vehicles daily, but just 7,000 of them are on the road between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., transportation data shows. Police and fire officials don't anticipate that the closures will cause problems.
Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said officers have been briefed at roll calls and reminded over police radios.
"Officers in the Northern District don't need to use the highway to get to calls," Guglielmi said. "We have police officers scattered across the city. These are Baltimore police officers. If anyone in the city knows how to work around a traffic obstacle, it's a police officer. And besides, they have red-and-blue lights and sirens on their cars. It definitely won't be a problem for us or for any other emergency agency. We won't be affected in the slightest."
Fire Department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said firefighters also are ready to deal with any traffic problems.
City officials checked the events calendar for downtown activities as they made construction plans.
"We are cognizant of events such as Orioles games and entertainment events. We will never shut down the lanes in both directions," said Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Transportation.
When the Orioles are in town, road crews will work on the southbound side of the JFX — and leave the northbound side open — to ease the way for departing fans. For the Preakness on May 19, the JFX will have two lanes open in each direction.
Murphy said traffic surveys over the years show the heaviest Pimlico traffic is concentrated between Northern Parkway and Interstate 695.