“It’s not going to be that bad,” official tells crowd wary of closing of Harford Road Bridge

Detours sending thousands of vehicles into residential streets is what worries Northeast residents the most. Questions? Put them in writing.

harford rd bridge

A local resident looks at renderings of a new bridge over Herring Run.

Photo by: Melody Simmons

The planned two-year, $25 million replacement of the Harford Road Bridge means many things to many people: demolition and design issues, construction safety concerns and how to reroute the 22,000 vehicles that cross the structure each day.

All were aired last night as a group of nearly 125 residents and business owners from Northeast Baltimore were told some of the nitty-gritty of the project for the first time at a meeting in the social hall of the Ray of Hope Baptist Church.

“What we’re talking about today is full closure of the bridge,” Robert Ferguson, a traffic engineer for the city’s Department of Engineering, told the crowd. “But it’s not going to be that bad.”

Most in the room disagreed.

Traffic on Neighborhood Streets

The focus and much of the angst expressed centered on traffic – and an elaborate color-coded detour map that city officials unveiled last night.

On it, thousands of vehicles would be rerouted daily into nearby communities under three proposed routes.

Streets highlighted for detours include North Avenue, The Alameda/Loch Raven Boulevard, Erdman Avenue, Chesterfield Avenue, Argonne Drive, Cold Spring Lane and Echodale Road.

Mayfield residents study routes proposed for traffic coming through the residential streets. (Photo by Melody Simmons)

Mayfield residents study the routes proposed for traffic diverted from the closed bridge. (Photo by Melody Simmons)

“You are coming in to neighborhood streets as detours,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose 14th District includes a portion of the impacted area. “Why are you not starting further south?”

Emily Chalmers, a Mayfield resident, said the community had specifically asked to have Chesterfield Avenue taken off as a route for the detours because it holds a K-8 Catholic school, St. Francis of Assisi.

The athletic fields at Herring Run Park, also on Chesterfield, are regularly used by several area schools for sporting events.

“We spent all this time at the last meeting saying please don’t do this to us,” Chalmers said. “And you came here to this meeting and have decided to do this to us.”

Map of alternative routes when Harford Road Bridge (located just north of Chesterfield Avenue) is closed. (Baltimore DOT)

Map of proposed routes when Harford Road Bridge (just north of Chesterfield Avenue) is closed. (Baltimore DOT)

Can’t Speak to a Reporter

Rebecca Malone, principal of St. Francis, also raised safety concerns about Chesterfield Avenue.

Transportation officials stood with passive expressions and did not respond to requests by residents to consider adding extra stop signs and possible speed bumps to certain residential neighborhoods to quell speeding traffic.

Jeremy M. Mocny, vice president of Whitman, Requardt & Associates, the engineering firm hired by the city to create the detours, declined to answer questions from a reporter after the meeting about how the detour maps were drawn up.

Mocny was told he could not comment by Scott B. Weaver, chief of the city’s bridge engineering section, after Weaver called Kathy Chopper Dominick, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, to ask permission to speak to a reporter.

Dominick nixed the request, saying all questions about the bridge had to be submitted to the department in writing.

Residents were allowed to ask questions during a Q&A period that lasted about an hour. In addition, they were told they could submit questions and comments about the bridge replacement project on a form handed out by transportation officials that did not contain any contacts or a phone number or email address in the department.

City transportation officials address last night's large crowd in Lauraville. Standing at far right is 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran. (Photo by Melody Simmons)

City transportation officials address last night’s crowd in Lauraville. Standing at far right is 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran, while seated (and raising hand) is the 14th District’s Mary Pat Clarke. (Photo by Melody Simmons)

MTA Reviewing Detour Plans

Some of the concerns raised included new routes for MTA buses thwarted from their daily runs along Harford Road. Chris Brown, the bridge project manager, could not answer questions about bus service, saying MTA officials were “reviewing” the detour plans.

The bridge replacement will cost city taxpayers $5 million, officials said. The remaining $20 million will be paid from federal and state funds. The project was first discussed in 2001. It was stalled in 2005 amid funding issues and was revived in 2008.

The new design will hold four traffic lanes, two bicycle lanes and two five-foot sidewalks. Overall, the bridge will increase 6 feet in width from the current structure, DOT officials said, to meet state and federal highway standards.

Plans call for closing the bridge, which spans a busy section of Harford Road just south of Lauraville and north of Mayfield, beginning in the summer of 2015.

Taking higher priority at DOT is the Central Avenue Bridge that will extend the roadway from Harbor East to Harbor Point and serve the new Exelon Tower at the site.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last month signed a commitment to finance that bridge with a mix of federal, state and city TIF funds.

Too Deteriorated to Rehab

The current structure is decrepit – filled with asphalt dimples, frequent potholes, cracks and whole chunks missing in the concrete curbs and sidewalks.

Harford Road Bridge in 1938. (Photo by Federal Highway Administration)

Harford Road Bridge in 1938. (Photo by the Federal Highway Administration)

“The bridge sufficiency rating. . . is classified as ‘poor’ at 39.6 out of a scale of zero to 100,” said a handout from the transportation department.

The bridge has deteriorated beyond repair. Among its problems: arch barrel deterioration, failing spandrel walls, inadequate fill drainage and an uneven roadway surface.

“For those of you who are history buffs, it was built in 1911, one year before the Titanic was built,” Brown pointed out.

When 95% of the design work is completed, another community meeting is expected to be held.

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  • dinadina619

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t be at the meeting last night, but this directly impacts our family (including bike commuters). I’m dismayed that the project will take so long when other cities can demolish a bridge and have a replacement in in a weekend. (I know the engineering isn’t the same, but there has got to be a middle ground between a weekend and more than 100 weeks.) Please continue to cover this story.

  • davethesuave

    i am not implying this is a simple solution, but it seems to me the bridge could be constructed in 2 phases, as 2 separate bridges, with a center gap which could then be utilized as a separator containing plantings not unlike the Harford Road landscaping south & north of this location. That way traffic flow could be kept open, one lane in each direction, on the half not being demolished. It’s not far-fetched, and not nearly as disruptive as the current plan being foisted upon us. Said flow would be constricted, to be sure, but the aim of a lot of the aforementioned landscaping was exactly that. Need I mention to anyone living in this area how northbound Harford Road just south of the bridge is already constricted by being reduced to one-and-a-half lanes between Erdman Avenue & Chesterfield Roads?

    • bmorepanic

      There are some physical issues with that – the ENTIRE thing – the bridge and its approaches from both sides are fill – not original terrain. The side of Lake Montebello facing the bridge is an earthen dam and must be left undisturbed. There are a cluster of water and sewer mains running through with a big pumping thing buried in the little bit of flat land at the base of the dam.

      Tiffany Run and the Herring Run currently make a hard turn that is being enforced by the sides of the bridge and the fill. It’s mostly clay, clay all the way down to the center of the earth there – I’ve seen a dug hole about 25-30 feet deep in there and it was still clay.

      And they’d to buy more land from the Rec’n’Parks department. The transportation department paid a pedestrian tunnel and the temporary pedestrian/bike bridge for the mere 6 feet along the length of the park that this design took.

  • ushanellore

    Look how this goes–Rebecca Malone, citizen and principal of St.Francis asks a question–transportation officials inscrutable expression–no answers.

    Detour maps–how were they drawn up? No answers.

    Jeremy Mocny vice president of the firm that drew up the detours asks Scott Weaver, chief of Baltimore’s bridge engineering who asks Kathy Chapman a DOT spokeswoman–up the ladder, up the ladder.

    Don’t open a mouth and say anything until you’ve gone up the ladder, up the ladder and where do you stand when you reach the top–at the feet of a mere media management woman–who promptly sends–down the ladder–down the ladder–the word–MUM.

    Yes–MUM–don’t talk to reporters–don’t talk to the common folks-they are too common to tackle extemporaneously-we must devise a plan to answer their concerns–everything must be in writing–then we can ponder, meander and consult our lawyers before we say anything OR we may never need to say anything-we can disappear into the mist and they will forget about it.

    If you are way way down the ladder–remember–you may be paying Kathy Chapman’s salary and the salary of Mocny and Weaver and the rest of those dunderheads but they will be plotting, planning and thinking MUM.

    And if anyone of them opens his mouth and breaks the rules of carefully crafted and staged public relations as dictated by the ilk of Kathy Chapman they will be guillotined promptly by DOT–the master programmer will be angry that one or two puppets dared to break away from the strings.

    Personnel management and manipulation should be removed as a job. If those folks went jobless in the USA I wouldn’t shed tears.

    Man! These are public servants? They should be renamed public enemies.

  • bmorepanic

    The Harford Road Bridge is special in a couple of ways. The main one is that it’s hollow and filled with plain old dirt – that is what is holding up the road surface. That means that it really can’t be cut into pieces because the dirt will fall out – literally. Not only has the dirt settled, but the sides of the bridge are slowly falling outwards. You can see various repair attempts at stabilizing the sides – the big metal plates and pins on both outside edges. If you walk under the bridge in a good storm, you can also see failures in the drainage systems and really decent erosion taking place at the footings of the main span.

    The only way to minimized traffic disruption would be to build an additional bridge through Hooper fields from chesterfield – negating half the sports fields for about 2 years. Unfortunately, there isn’t a good way to get vehicles up the other side of the park and back onto Harford Road. A pedestrian/bike only bridge was supposed to be the first thing constructed and that new bridge will be some distance from the existing bridge.

    Hopefully, people will learn to go another way within a few days.

    But transportation should detour onto the closest MAJOR arterial street and not onto minor arterials that can’t handle the traffic. This isn’t the typical “road closed” for a few hours or days. My house will be directly affected too.

    • davethesuave

      a serious question for you, bmorepanic: conceding you have good knowledge of the materials that went in to the construction of the bridge, would you concede there MUST be a way to “cut” into the bridge lengthwise, stabilize the materials, restore whatever material leaked out during this process with, actually, better material, and only then demolish one half, leaving one lane in each direction.
      I know bridge engineers are smart people; I used to detail bridges for the engineering firm STV/Lyons Associates back in the late 80’s. I also know people in governmental positions are not encouraged to step right up and push for imaginative solutions to complex problems; quite the contrary, it would be the peak of wisdom to not call attention to yourself.

      But I can’t shake the feeling there is a way, maybe several ways, to achieve the construction of the new bridge without the simple-minded and ridiculous shutting down of one of Baltimore’s major arteries.

      • bmorepanic

        They did study that with, it was the city’s favored solution – and this is just from memory, but a whole group of engineers from different firms told them it can’t just be done. Once the top is opened, the water goes in and the dirt is going to ride out plus the bridge is already in risky condition with a very real risk of the entire thing giving way suddenly while cutting it.

        Then, not only do you have the bridge mess, but the potential, a very real potential, that the major drainage way for northeast could suddenly have a dam. The dam would block tiffany run as well as the herring run, endangering the Montebello Water treatment plant, the dam at the side of Lake Montebello and the neighborhood beside Argonne. Because they covered over tiffany run to build the treatment plant.

        The original, original plan was to build a temporary traffic bridge a little ways away through the park, but everyone decided we weren’t worth the money. The bridge is listed, so the new bridge needs to have the same general outline as the existing bridge.

        We lived without the Argonne Bridge for over a year and we can all live without the Harford Road Bridge. It’s not like the people who live here don’t know the alternatives.

  • Jed Weeks

    I think the engineers did a great job of explaining the unique challenges with this bridge, and they stayed more than an hour after the meeting’s official conclusion to answer every question face-to-face with residents who also stayed late.

    Nothing’s ideal about this situation, but I don’t think this reporting paints a fair picture of the event. It was mostly residents saying “NIMBY” when there’s literally nowhere else for the traffic to go.

    Of course nobody wants the congestion on their streets. But what’s the alternative? Letting the bridge collapse and then fixing it, leaving us in the exact same situation we’re in now, plus a few dead bodies?

    • ushanellore

      I think they could have placated the residents by telling them exactly what you are saying here. The article implies that the engineers had to get permission from the DOT to answer questions. May be they only answered questions that didn’t make them uncomfortable even though they stayed back and made nice.

      The truth lies in answers to uncomfortable and demanding, may be even unreasonable questions. The hard to answer questions are the ones that will lead to solutions. May be a consensus could have been reached with the residents that there is no other way.

      The duration of the project seems extraordinarily long. Why has the Central Ave bridge taken precedence? Those bridge proponents have a bigger clout, of course.

      All said and done the engineers may not be the bad guys but they are surrounded by many in the DOT who seem to be making politically motivated decisions. Chris Christie revisited in another form. If this bridge work was already stalled once in 2005, why did it not come before the other bridge for completion?

    • Lizzie 58

      Jed: Harford Road at Erdman could be signed for local traffic only, leaving Mayfield south of the bridge alone. The main re-routing here involved directing traffic north on Harford Road east on East 32nd, north on Hillen and then east on Argonne, If you are heading south, you reverse this route. The other way is north on Harford Road, east on Erdman, north on Belair and west on Parkside. If you keep Mayfield fir local only, you also keep traffic from diverting to Lake Montebello or Curran Drive.

      Commuters who find this difficult will find other routes along Loch Raven, Alameda, etc. The people in Lauraville and Mayfiekd know the back streets in and out anyway. The people of Mayfield will have to a fee blocks more to their bus stop. The other thing Is to make sure that there is good pedestrian and bike path remains open between Mayfield and Lauraville at all times.

      • bmorepanic

        West on Parkside is not do-able. We are load posted already and we do not have the street width to support more than our 3,200 car trips per day that we already have. Plus, even a school bus causes a minor earthquake (and no, I’m not kidding).

        Hillen and/or 32nd street are the only physically big enough streets. Erdman is only 3 lanes for traffic and is already posted with lane changes based on time of day.

        Why does this project NEED to have multiple routes?

        • Lizzie 58

          Bmore: I hear you. Family members emailed and told me “Cousin, you did not mean Parkside. You should use Erdman and Moravia. I stand corrected.

  • Lizzie 58

    I know this bridge well. I grew up near here and still have family in the area.

    It defies reality that the city agency, the Department of Transportation (DOT), which preached the safety of school children like a Bible Belt preacher when it came to their speed camera program, seems to show no regard for the safety of school children in and around Mayfield and Herring Run. But then again, it is only a Catholic school, a public park and a working and middle class neighborhood. (Similar to the working class neighborhood of Morrell Park where DOT suggested that 600 plus truck trips per day in and out of the CSX Intermodal Facility could be done with only minor changes in turning radii of the streets.)

    Can anyone imagine Messrs. Weaver and Brown and DOT acting this way in a politically connected, more affluent neighborhood? Would they tell rich people that it won’t be that bad?

    There are always options to every project. DOT does not want to spend the money on ways to mitigate the bridge construction in Mayfield and Lauraville. Since there is a lot of State money here (and federal money may be sourced via the State), the community like Morrell Park should contact the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates and make some noise. I would also ask the Archbishop to send a letter to Director William Johnson and the Mayor reminding them that protecting Catholic schools, schoolchildren and Herring Run Park is equally important under DOT’s mission of replacing old bridges. The people’s interests by the people’s government are supposed to come before the bridge engineer’s interests.

  • J-O-Joe

    Well the DOT won’t give out an email address but here’s the contact info. for the DOT press hacks:
    For Public Relations Information:
    Adrienne Barnes or Kathy Chopper at (410) 361-9296
    And although you can’t find it on the City’s DOT Website, the director’s email address is:
    Let’s have at ’em!!!

  • J-O-Joe

    Well, the city wouldn’t offer an email address to submit questions, and you can’t find it on the DOT website, but here is the email for the Director of DOT William M. Johnson,
    I also can’t help but wonder if another alternative would have been found if our current Governor were still M.O.B. and living just up the hill from this bridge on Walther Blvd. I don’t imagine he would have been detoured through BelAir Edison or CHUM on a daily basis for 2 years.

    • asteroid_B612

      J-O-Joe — city employees can generally be reached via email using the following format Works for everyone except for the people with common names, such as Mr. Johnson above, who added his middle initial M to the mix.

    • bmorepanic

      This has been in “planning” for about 10 years.

  • KnowNothingParty

    I always thought that bridge was too big to fail. Demolish the existing bridge and do not build a new one says I. Make Perring Parkway an expressway to handle the vehicle volume.

    • bmorepanic

      I could kiss you.

  • Andrew Stewart Harryman

    As a a lifelong Mayfield resident, I am mostly worried about the traffic that will end up on Chesterfield avenue. During the fall and spring, the park is packed with children and sports teams, usually right around rush hour. I am worried that we might see someone getting hit by a car at some point.

  • carthell

    The diversions are interesting, to say the least, especially via Belair & Erdman. Right now getting through the intersection is challenging (especially during rush-hour), partly exacerbated by the closure of the intersection of Sinclair and Edison and many commuters disregarding the signs on Erdman controlling when left turns can be made onto Belair.

    Traffic should be diverted up Hillen & Harford, with a second diversion @ 32nd & Harford. Let Hillen/Perring Pkwy. take the traffic, that was its original design goal of Perring anyway.

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