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DATE News (chronologically)
06/09/11
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Baltimore GP construction causing pain downtown
This Grand Prix race the city has planned for September had better turn out to be worth all the traffic hassle it's causing.

Because if it doesn't prove to be the best event to come to town since the Preakness, it's time for an aroused citizenry to reach for the pitchforks and head to City Hall.

The folks who are bringing us this extravaganza — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake first among them — insist the spectacle of Indy cars racing through the streets of Baltimore will bring an influx of money and the kind of exposures other cities would kill for.

Maybe they're right, and 10 years from now the Baltimore Grand Prix will be a beloved civic institution and a source of pride for us all.

But so far, all it has brought is misery.

For months now, navigating one's way around the Inner Harbor has been one nightmare after another as road crews close off lanes — and sometimes whole streets, as will occur Monday on Conway — to smooth the driving surfaces along the route of the Grand Prix. Some of us have had to develop elaborate strategies for avoiding the worst of the resulting congestion.

While proponents of the race have focused on the benefits, the people dealing with the resulting traffic woes are wondering whether city leaders accurately considered the costs. Yes, the road improvements had to be done eventually anyway. And, yes, the race will bring in some bucks. But the construction could have been a lot less disruptive if it hadn't been crammed into a short stretch of time. And reasonable minds can question who will benefit from this supposed gusher of cash.

Dan Clements, a prominent Maryland trial attorney, expressed his angst about the project in a recent email.

"Let's presume that these guys are going to say that Baltimore will benefit to the tune of $50,000,000 over that weekend (100,000 visitors, at $500 spent each on average). What is the calculation for the lost money and time that tens of thousands of us have spent sitting in traffic in downtown or trying to get into downtown because of the constant and repeated closures on Pratt Street and Conway?"

Clements noted that attorneys in Baltimore bill clients at anywhere from $250 to $700 an hour.

"Most have lost at least 20 hours of time just the added 15 minutes a morning like this morning getting into town because Pratt Street was down to 2 lanes. What is that calculation? I'll bet it's way more than the $50 million which will only be realized by the hotel owners, T-shirt folks and waiters. And, incidentally, I'd be OK with my lost 20 hours if I know that $50 million was going directly into the pockets of waiters and waitresses and cleaning staff at the Marriott — but that isn't what happens."

Bob DeLeon, who commutes daily from his home in Columbia to his job with Legg Mason in Harbor East, regularly finds himself trapped in the belly of the Grand Prix beast. He wrote that he's constantly running into heavy construction and closed lanes on Conway, Light, Pratt and Charles streets.

"I realize that construction is a necessity in an ever-improving city. I also realize that the city is hosting the Grand Prix race this Labor Day. However, I find it hard to believe that it takes two years to complete all that construction and it couldn't have been better coordinated. Why not work around the clock to finish the job?

"Is all this construction really just to host a three-day event this Labor Day? Does nobody care about the unbelievable choking of traffic it is causing on a daily basis to all the employers, employees and tourists that come into the city on a daily basis?"

Actually, the folks at the Baltimore Department of Transportation do care. They're nice people who like to see traffic flowing smoothly.

But the elected officials in charge of them would likely care a lot more if folks such as Clements, DeLeon and myself lived in the city and could vote the bums out. But there are plenty of city residents, particularly in South Baltimore, who are beginning to wonder if this isn't the most misguided civic project in Baltimore since the late Wally Orlinsky's infamous Bicentennial Birthday Cake.

One person who remains bullish on the race is Councilman William Cole IV, the city's No. 1 advocate for the Grand Prix. He's also a smart, passionate guy who can just about make you believe that fairy dust will fall on this event.

Cole said he understands the complaints of the folks who've been coping with the mess. He said the work on Light Street has taken far longer than he ever suspected, largely because of gas leaks discovered by Baltimore Gas & Electric after the street was torn up.

"I'm frustrated too — mainly because there have been a couple of delays that have not been foreseeable," he said.

But Cole said the city will reap loads of tax revenues — on hotels, meals and tickets — from the thousands of visitors expected to flood the city during a normally slow Labor Day weekend. And he expects the event will put a shine on a civic image that has been tarnished by its "success" as a venue for TV crime dramas.

City Transportation Director Khalil Zaied said Friday that the worst of the delays will be over after the two-week closing of Conway Street that starts Monday. He said some wheelchair ramp construction will linger into late July or early August but will be less disruptive than the work that has been done so far.

Let's hope Cole and Zaied are right on all counts. Because if they're not, Baltimore, its elected officials and thousands of commuters will be left holding the Booby Prix. Baltimore Sun

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