Howard St. repair in high gear

Sun Staff

A lot's riding on the repair work at Howard and Lombard streets.

Professional sports teams depend on light rail and buses to transport fans through the crossroads, and thousands of people try to traverse downtown, so the pressure is on to quickly reopen one of Baltimore's busiest intersections - closed after a water main burst there July 18.

With the Ravens' home opener set for Sept. 9, construction crews have been rushing to compress six months of repairs into five weeks, hoping to make the intersection passable in time for the debut of the Super Bowl champs at nearby .

"I think a project like this becomes a challenge for everybody," said Dan Rocks, acting chief of the city's Department of Public Works' construction management division. "They look at it a little differently than they do a normal construction project because there's so much work to do in a small amount of time."

A lot of intricate work is going into reopening the intersection.

Geologist Dorian Shuford and co-workers at Jessup's Earth Resources Technology spent about two weeks scanning the surface with sophisticated machinery to identify voids in the dirt and aggregate beneath the road that might have been caused by the water main rupture.

The road has to be strong enough to sustain the weight of light rail cars, buses and other normal traffic.

"What happens is you think you have a very rigid surface of asphalt and concrete, but then you have fill which is not so rigid," said Shuford, a geophysicist.

"If you've got a rigid surface over top a void, eventually it will collapse when it gets some weight on it. And that's their concern, obviously."

Voids beneath the surface were identified by placing a 900-megahertz antenna under a baby stroller and putting a console and laptop in the stroller's bed. The antenna scraped the surface, while the console translated data to the computer screen, Shuford said.

"It's not that it's physically difficult, but you have to be very patient," Shuford said. "In an area like that, you want to collect a huge amount of data to get a complete picture. It can be very tedious, and it takes a lot of patience."

'Under the gun'

Shuford said that normally a written report on her findings would take weeks - and she will eventually complete one - but "in this case, we had to basically come up with the contour map and verbally give them the information. ... We were under the gun, but we wanted to make sure our data was good."

Lynn Andrews, who also has worked at Howard and Lombard in recent weeks for Jessup's Concrete Slab Jacking, said last week that her crews had drilled about 35 holes around the light rail tracks in the area to identify voids.

They planned to pump a nonshrinking grout mixture, which meets the requirements for compressive strength, into the holes.

"It doesn't seem to be as much as I expected, but you never know until you get all the holes drilled," she said. "You can't get a whole lot of access when you have so many different things going on at one time."

Rocks and Bob Castor, site superintendent for Cherry Hill Construction, the Jessup-based firm that was awarded an emergency $1.35 million contract to restore the intersection, said they think workers can meet DPW's deadline - the city wants the intersection reopened Sept. 10 at the latest - provided there's no bad weather or unforeseen problems such as with utilities.

"Additional work will still take place after that, like replacing the sidewalk and curb around the Holiday Inn," Rocks said. "It's consistent with the city's Streetscape Improvements."

Streetside amenities

Streetscape, a cooperative effort between the Downtown Partnership and DPW, began a few years ago and puts amenities including park benches, decorative sidewalks and landscaping in certain areas, Kocher said. To that end, the concrete sidewalk in front of the Holiday Inn will be replaced with bricks, Rocks said.

Rocks said the intersection could be opened when the Ravens play the Chicago Bears. But the Mass Transit Administration might still have to work on some light rail tracks.

Suzanne Bond, communications director for the MTA, said, "We'll have to lay rails, and we will want to do a safety certification on the line. The line has been down for what will be almost two months by the time everything is completed.

"MTA will assess all the rails, the [overhead power lines], signals and timing, all of which is important to ensure the system is in sound working order and is safe for our customers."

The water main burst about the same time a CSX Transportation Inc. freight train carrying chemicals derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel, which passes under the water main, causing a fire that burned for several days.

Officials have said it could take up to nine months to determine the cause of the train derailment, including whether the water main break played a part in or resulted from the derailment.

If CSX is found to be at fault, it and its insurance carriers would presumably be liable for much of the associated costs.

If the water main break is to blame, the city would be responsible.

Work on the 40-inch water main was completed July 29, at a cost of more than $200,000, said Robert H. Murrow, a DPW spokesman.

"At this point, Baltimore City is paying Cherry Hill Construction," using state transportation funds, Rocks said.

"I don't know whether that is going to be reimbursed by CSX or some other party in the future.

"But in the interest of restoring traffic to normal, Baltimore City has contracted with Cherry Hill Construction to get the intersection reopened."

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