Losing a bridge upends life in Baltimore

Scores of businesses have suffered since the Dali container ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in late March, causing it to crumple into the Patapsco River.
Last Updated : 12 June 2024, 14:23 IST

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Baltimore: Frank's Bay Tavern in the neighborhood of South Baltimore -- house cocktail: the grain alcohol Bay Slinger -- has been hit hard by the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Dockworkers who once stopped in for a beer after crossing the bridge are taking other routes home, said Karen Zapushek, who runs the bar with her husband, Frank. Customers are also staying away, she said, because many more trucks are barreling past the bar, making the street outside, with its narrow sidewalks, feel even more dangerous.

"We already had a problem with traffic in our community -- and it's just been really increased with the Key Bridge being down," Zapushek said, adding that sales had plunged 40 per cent since the bridge fell. "It's really bad."

Scores of businesses have suffered since the Dali container ship crashed into the bridge in late March, causing it to crumple into the Patapsco River. The accident severed the Baltimore Beltway, one of the city's most important highways. Commutes and deliveries are taking much longer because vehicles that used the bridge are going through two highly congested tunnels in central Baltimore or taking other longer routes.

A commute from South Baltimore to Sparrows Point, a giant logistics hub where Amazon and FedEx have facilities, might have taken 15 minutes in the morning rush hour before the bridge fell. Now that trip is taking around an hour through one of the tunnels or on other routes that skirt the city center, residents said.

Traffic is likely to get worse as Baltimore's port, much of which was idled by the accident, begins humming again. Large cargo vessels recently started making calls at the port after shipping channels were cleared. And truck traffic is expected to soon surge back. Many trucks will use the street where Zapushek's bar sits or other local roads.

Residents and business owners are bracing for more noise and pollution from that traffic, undermining their efforts to improve safety in neighborhoods that have long grappled with crime and poverty.

"We're anticipating that once the port is fully operational, there is going to be a tremendous amount of trucks coming through these neighborhoods," said Meredith Chaiken, executive director of the Greater Baybrook Alliance, a community development group that works in South Baltimore.

Officials expect a replacement bridge to be finished in 2028. That is soon enough not to cause businesses to flee Baltimore, traffic experts say, but it will still take a toll.

Even before the Key Bridge collapsed, Baltimore suffered from road congestion -- TomTom Traffic ranked the average travel time in its city center as the sixth worst in the country.

Many of the drivers who traversed the Key Bridge appear to be using three other main roads: interstates 95 and 895 and the western part of the Baltimore Beltway. This has increased vehicle volumes on those roads around 10 per cent on average and made commutes about 20-35 minutes longer, according to state officials.

Fuel trucking is one of the businesses most affected by the Key Bridge collapse. Tanker trucks carrying petroleum products used the bridge because they are barred from the two tunnels.

Now they have to make much longer journeys -- and many are going through Brooklyn, a neighborhood of South Baltimore where the median household income in one ZIP code is roughly half that of Maryland. Last month, a steady flow of these trucks made their way down South Hanover Street, a main drag where popular restaurants and salons sit alongside empty buildings.

The trucks are not the biggest concern of business owners on the street. When asked recently about the traffic, three assumed the question was about drug trafficking.

But Chaiken said heavy truck traffic could create the conditions for more illicit activities. On streets with lots of traffic, people don't do things that make neighborhoods safer over time, like lingering outside to talk to neighbors or having meals outdoors, she said.

Chaiken would like to restrict trucks from South Hanover and put them on a parallel street with fewer small stores. Kelly Jones, a barber at Stylin' Zone Barbershop & Salon, on South Hanover, said he supported the idea.

"It would be a lot safer because there's a lot of people crossing the street back and forth right here on South Hanover," he said.

Other neighborhoods, such as Dundalk, which stretches from Baltimore's eastern port facilities into Baltimore County, are also seeing more trucks.

"You can see how narrow that street is -- we've seen trucks go there," said Latasha Gresham-James, executive director of Dundalk Renaissance, a community group, pointing down an avenue lined with houses and neat lawns. The avenue is not a designated truck route. But because it is only a mile from I-95 and an industrial area, truck drivers may be using it by mistake.

Gresham-James said bigger, clearer signs were needed to guide truck drivers away from residential roads, especially now that the collapsed bridge has prompted them to look for new routes. Previous efforts to put in place such signs were insufficient, she added.

"I don't want to waste this crisis," Gresham-James said. "We can have things in place to make things better for residents, businesses, truckers and regular car drivers."

Erica Palmisano, a spokesperson for Johnny Olszewski, the Baltimore County executive, said the county was monitoring traffic as the port reopened and would "continue to collaborate with state, regional and community partners on assessing needs, identifying solutions and making adjustments as necessary."

Louis Campion, the president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said his group had supported the development of truck maps and worked with local agencies on electronic enforcement measures to stop trucks from going down certain streets.

​Experts who study the link between traffic and economic development said they were not yet worried about the Baltimore situation.

Shocks like the collapse of the Key Bridge usually don't cause permanent economic harm, they said. The collapse of a Minneapolis bridge in 2007, for example, appeared to have a minimal impact on the local economy.

Congestion is typical in and around cities, so a period of longer traffic delays is unlikely to drive away residents or investment. Travelers also find new routes, which eventually brings down travel times. And Baltimore and its port -- the country's dominant gateway for vehicle and large machinery shipments -- play a crucial role in the US economy.

"Losing infrastructure is not going to immediately doom the economy in Baltimore," said Matthias Sweet, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University's School of Urban and Regional Planning.

For example, a spokesperson for Amazon said the company was working with employees at its facilities in Sparrows Point, the logistics hub, whose commutes had been affected by the bridge collapse. It has changed schedules or allowed some workers to transfer to another site.

Much depends on how quickly the Key Bridge is rebuilt, Sweet said. "If people believe that it will competently be replaced soon," he added, "I could imagine a reduced potential for firms and individuals to relocate out of Baltimore."

Published 12 June 2024, 14:23 IST

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