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Accountabilityby Mark Reutter6:30 amMar 6, 20240

After 8 years of construction and 31% over budget, the Central Avenue Streetscape is almost done

The Board of Estimates is expected to approve another $6.5 million today to finish a project bogged down in cost overruns

Above: Baltimore’s Central Avenue, festooned with flexi-posts and pavement markings, just north of Eastern Avenue. (Fern Shen)

When we last looked at Baltimore’s Central Avenue Streetscape project in 2021, it was 488 days late and $5 million over budget.

Since then, the seemingly endless digging and scraping and repaving along this half-mile stretch of roadway bordering Harbor East has resulted in $9 million of new EWOs (extra work orders), the biggest of which will be quietly doled out today by the Board of Estimates.

Quietly because the latest EWO – as was the case for eight previous EWOs – has been placed on the board’s “routine” agenda, which buries the expenditures amidst dozens of unrelated items, all approved in a blanket vote.

Barring a last-minute agenda change, neither the public nor the board’s three elected members – Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry – will hear from the city Department of Transportation about the multimillion-dollar “global settlement” it struck with contractor Allan Myers.

Nor the 593 day extension granted to the contractor to complete the project by May 30, 2024.

Nor the late-breaking change by the Scott administration that converted two car lanes into flexi-post-protected bike paths.

12 NOON UPDATE: As expected, Scott, Mosby and Henry approved the Central Avenue costs overruns without acknowledging their existence.

All of which has made Central Avenue the priciest piece of rebuilt roadway in Baltimore.

What started out as a three-year project has wound up consuming eight years.

And with a price tag ballooning from $46.8 million to $61.2 million, according to DOT documents reviewed by The Brew.

Pedestrians enter a wide Fleet Street crosswalk at the Central Avenue intersection. (Fern Shen)

Pedestrians enter a wide Fleet Street crosswalk at the Central Avenue intersection. (Fern Shen)

Pandora’s Box

What caused the delays and the 31% price escalation?

At first, it was a multitude of buried streams and broken pipes under Central Avenue, which originally was built by the Northern Central Railway as a way to get to the waterfront (hence its name and wide right-of-way).

Despite decades of heavy industrial use, DOT’s engineering staff apparently did not factor in “degraded underground conditions” when the contract was awarded to Myers in March 2016.

The Pandora’s box of infrastructure issues discovered after the roadway was torn up only partly explains the cycle of accelerating costs.

“Conflicts with existing and ongoing new construction along Central Avenue” also led to delays and mounting EWOs, agency records say.

The reference here is to the Paterakis family, which was busy expanding its Harbor East real estate empire along Central Avenue, erecting a Hyatt Place hotel, a 22-story apartment building and a Whole Foods outlet.

Initially, it was believed that extending Central Avenue to Harbor Point over a former city canal posed the biggest construction challenge.

The connector bridge, however, opened mostly at cost in 2018, while the rest of the project languished behind Jersey barriers.

North of Fleet Street, the Central Avenue project will lumber on for at least another year. (Mark Reutter)

Central Avenue back in 2021 when the project was about to be reconfigured with protected bike lanes. (Mark Reutter)

Complete Streets Revamp

In September 2021, DOT announced that Central Avenue was 80% complete and would be open for traffic by October 2022.

But shortly thereafter, the Scott administration concluded that the original plan violated the Complete Streets ordinance passed by the City Council in 2018.

The four-lane road was reduced to two lanes, and two protected bicycle paths were designed to run between the sidewalks and parking lanes, prompting praise from some and complaints from others who said they’d received little notice.

Today’s multimillion-dollar settlement with Allan Myers mostly arises from the roadway reconfiguration, which DOT says calms traffic and makes cyclists and pedestrians safer.

Central Avenue at the Pratt Street intersection, looking north. (Fern Shen)

Above: The recently finished Central Avenue bike lane at Pratt Street. Below: How it now looks at Bank Street (Fern Shen)

Central Avenue, Bank Street intersection, looking north. (Fern Shen)

According to DOT, the $6,498,281.22 up for Board of Estimates approval today does the following:

“Reimburses the contractor for costs for extended use of temporary street lighting, reimburses the contractor for additional costs in the construction of the protected bike lanes, addresses extra work costs for the water main failure at Central Avenue and Pratt Street, reimburses the contractor for work performed to allow a safe race route during the Baltimore Bike Race and Race Staging, and extra costs to reconstruct the storm drain at 141 S. Central Avenue.”

The new bike lanes directly cost $182,432.22, according to the cost sheet, while staging and controls for the Baltimore Bike Race (better known as the Maryland Cycling Classic that uses Central Avenue as part of its route) added $27,057 to the bill.

The city also is paying $45,000 to Allan Myers to replace the bike racks it installed under the 2016 contract so that they are congruent with “current city standard bike racks.”

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