Thursday, April 28, 2016

Taking the "Highway to Nowhere" back, one step at a time

A year after the second Baltimore uprising and after the injustices of  urban highways have now been officially recognized on the federal level it is time in Baltimore to fix the most egregious transportation scar in West Baltimore: The Highway to Nowhere.

The whole monstrosity is only a bit longer than a mile. Filling the entire trench was briefly on the table as part of a concept plan that came up when the post-Murphy Home plans were made. But it was deemed unfeasible for its high cost. Instead, nothing was done until  Obama created the ARRA funds which were used to bring down the freeway walls and ramps at its western end.

Thus the highway was made shorter when MTA leveled the abutments and ramps at Pulaski Street in West Baltimore to create additional MARC rider parking. In the course of that Payson Street was opened up again to cross the US 40 territory like a normal city street.
A concept on how development at MLK and
Franklin/Mulberry could turn the current freeway environment
 into a regular city intersection (ArchPlan Inc.)

The next chance comes when Social Security West gets redeveloped. In collaboration with the Harlem Park and Poppleton communities my office prepared sketches when the Red Line was planned. They show how the eastern end of the freeway could be truncated.

The sketches show the overpasses at Martin Luther King Boulevard demolished. Franklin and Mulberry Streets would instead intersect at grade, where currently the slip ramps already require a signal anyway. Lots of space could be gained here, either for development at each of the corners of the intersecting streets just as it is supposed to be in a real city. There could also be a much more accessible and useful green space than all the current leftover spaces used by the homeless for tent cities.

The former Social Security Complex is currently being reviewed for options by Caves Valley Development. This may be an opportunity to address the freeway as well. The buildings are overwhelmingly big as it is, so additional development lots may seem counter-intuitive. Yet, finding uses and users for the behemoth will most likely require drastic interventions to the way the complex is situated and accessed anyway.
The "gateway to downtown" under the abandoned
Social Security West complex.
(Photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

An immediate step, one that may be even more important in knitting the community north and south of the US 40 gash back together and it would be much easier to achieve.

The idea is to re-connect and re-open Fremont Avenue. This important diagonal was once a major route before MLK was built as a downtown by-pass. Freemont Avenue would cross the Highway to Nowhere where both roads are on the same level. Opening Fremont wouldn't require any re-grading or major work, just the removal of Jersey Barriers and paving the median. Cheap and effective! Opening this connection would still allow the later construction of the Red Line in the median of the freeway since it would dive into a tunnel before Fremont.

How important that particular connection is, even with the huge barrier in place, is visible when one follows the foot path that many feet keep tamp every day even in deep snow. People are so intent on connectivity, that they jump across four sets of barriers and cross six lanes of high speed traffic, just to get across.
The US 40 overpass at MLK (Photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
What would all that mean to traffic? Not that much!

Additional delays would be minimal considering that the capacity of the US 40 corridor is entirely determined by the signals at  each end, i.e at Warwick, Pulaski and Greene Streets. An additional signal at Freemont and MLK would hardly make a big difference, especially if it were properly timed.

Just remember when the ditch was closed for the work on the west end: All traffic had to cross MLK at grade at the signals and had to pass all the signals along Franklin and Mulberry as well. It hardly made a big travel time difference and showed how superfluous the trench really is from the perspective of moving cars.
Besides, the whole point of the interventions wouold be to benefit the communities of West Baltimore instead of the commuters coming in from Howard County.

After those two improvements, all the bridges should be improved or widened to a point where two bridges together could create a larger lid at least for an entire block. That would be the topic of another article. A start on bridge improvements will be made this year at the Fulton Avenue bridge with the help of a federal grant announced today.

After those interventions the trench would still be there waiting for the big solution, but it would be much less damaging to the historic communities to the north and south and connectivity would have been drastically increased.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the east end of the "Highway to Nowhere"> Fremount Avenue is the diagonal on the left, the MLK flyover is on the right

the full extent of the gash through the middle of a once vital community is visible here