The senator and the highway
Barbara Mikulski did not stop the expressway through Fells Point. Rather, the plan dragged on until it became too impractical and expensive.
Above: This 2006 stock photo shows historic South Broadway that was threatened for many years by the proposed expressway.
Senator Barbara Mikulski appears to be obsessed with defining her role and legacy in the Fells Point highway war. Over the last week, she has addressed the issue in the media and, most strikingly, in her speech at the funeral services of William Donald Schaefer.
She says that the movement to stop I-83 through Fells Point and Canton by herself and citizen groups – in defiance of the late Mayor Schaefer – was a “defining moment” in recent Baltimore history.
The result, according to the senator, was the building of the Ft. McHenry Tunnel that bypassed southeast Baltimore, followed by the revival of Fells Point, Canton and Harbor East as thriving waterfront neighborhoods.
The actual facts are a lot less tidy.
The Ft. McHenry alignment for I-95 was adopted by the city in 1968, though the question of whether to build a bridge or a tunnel was still up in the air, so to speak.
That was well before any decisions were made to cancel I-83 through Fells Point and before Schaefer became mayor. Contrary to Mikulski’s assertion, the city wanted both highways.
Saving Fells Point, but Not its Surroundings
I dug out the City Planning Department’s 1976 “Comprehensive Plan” which shows a still-alive I-83 in a very short tunnel of about six blocks under Fells Point, with portals at approximately Caroline and Chester streets.
This would have killed Canton and Harbor East just as surely as any I-83 alternative before that, so while it may or may not have been a “defining moment” for the heart of Fells Point, it would not have had much benefit beyond that.
And that outcome reinforces the assertion that what Schaefer ultimately wrought during his 15 years as mayor was “two Baltimores” – one well off and one not.
If the I-83 compromise plan had had gone through, the “glittery” Baltimore would have been decidedly smaller than it is now (only the Fells Point waterfront, but not Canton and Harbor East), while the “other” Baltimore of decay (symbolized by the West Side’s “highway to nowhere”) would have been even bigger.
But this initial compromise plan fashioned by Schaefer and Mikulski put the highway engineers under the gun to come up with a plan that was physically and economically feasible.
The city’s 1977 comprehensive plan follow-up showed was a still highly damaging tunnel that went out in the water but still had portals on the waterfront.
The east portal would have been approximately where the waterfront housing now is at Boston and Lakewood streets. The west portal would have been on the Allied Chemical site, near where the Morgan Stanley office building is now.
This was before the hazardous chrome pollution was identified on the old Allied site. The eventual $100 million cleanup would have been charged to the highway project rather than to Allied Signal. Or it would never have gotten done at all, and we would have had chrome pollution continue to leach out into the harbor.
An Expressway Peninsula
I should mention that my career in the City Planning Department began in 1977. After that, the city became continually less graphic in showing proposed highways in its annual plans, focusing mostly on the capital budget listings.
Moreover, the expressway engineering was the province of a quasi-city/state agency called the Interstate Division for Baltimore City. I would occasionally be allowed to get a glimpse at some secret memos, but that’s about all.
The next evolution of the I-83 plan was the proposal to build a peninsula out into the Canton harbor to house the east highway portal. The engineers were obviously going to great and expensive lengths to accommodate the highway in a way that “saved” Fells Point.
Most of the Canton shoreline would also have been saved, but the view out into the water toward Ft. McHenry would have been obscured by the new peninsula in the foreground.
At this time, the late 1970s, housing along the Canton waterfront had already been wiped out for the proposed expressway. (So had thousands of houses along Franklin-Mulberry corridor in West Baltimore and the Otterbein neighborhood in South Baltimore.) The great plans for Harbor East and Harbor Point were still not yet envisioned. So there was not much of a community constituency to continue to fight the highway plans.
So the festering waterfront I-83 expressway proposal, continuing into the 1980s, felt like a relatively low-level threat, still taking hostages, but in a fairly benign way.
By that time Fells Point was really prospering, while Canton and Harbor East were not. Rather than being settled in a “defining moment” of political clarity, as Sen. Mikulski now describes it, the proposed Fells Point expressway merely became a protracted stalemate that continued to get more and more expensive.
A Surprise Resolution
As I look back on this discussion, it is now apparent when the true “defining moment” took place. The Brew comment by Art Cohen got it right. The turning point was when the federal government decided that some Interstate highway money could be used for transit and other non-road projects.
The federal largesse could then be spread around the rest of the state, which was especially nice because Don Schaefer was elected Maryland’s governor in 1986.
That’s the period when I-83 beyond its present terminus at East Fayette St. died once and for all.
If it had died any sooner, that might have made the hostage neighborhoods feel better, but it would have meant a major loss of federal bucks, which were the manna from heaven upon which Schaefer, Mikulski and many other politicians have based their careers.
The big prize for the local pols was the subway extension from Charles Center to The Johns Hopkins Hospital. This project was originally supposed to go all the way to Memorial Stadium, whose future was already in doubt, but the Interstate transfer was enough money to get it to Hopkins.
To do this, ridership numbers had to be jiggled. Rider projections were based on building a bus terminal, which would intercept bus riders and have them transfer onto the rail line.
After federal approval, Johns Hopkins pulled the plug on the bus terminal. The extension was finished in 1994, a year before Schaefer’s second term as governor ended.
Existing Metro Subway in Limbo
In 2011, the future of the subway beyond Hopkins is now in more doubt than ever. The Maryland Transit Administration quietly scuttled its study of extending it to Morgan State University when it became painfully apparent that it was not feasible.
So all of Baltimore’s rail transit eggs are going in the proposed Red Line basket for the foreseeable future. That’s despite the fact that the Red Line has become enormously expensive, while the Hopkins subway terminus is a horrendous underutilization of the city’s existing transit system.
But limbo is a common place for transportation plans to end up. That’s the lesson of the I-83 plan through Fells Point. Real defining moments are few and far between.
Gerald Neily was transportation planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996.