JFX turns 50: Baltimore's six-lane Main Street
Expressway shaped modern Baltimore and brought the city and suburbs closer together
On the first day of two-way traffic on the only open stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway, this car failed to complete the trip. Gustav Fisher, 57, of the 100 block of North Montford Ave, was taken to Union Memorial Hospital with lacerations after his car left the roadway at Reservoir Street. (Baltimore Sun)
Some things never change.
The JFX is the road we love to hate but can't live without, the city's Main Street where everyone has a tale to tell.
Shannon Mullaney met her husband on the JFX. The soundtrack of David Rocah's workday is often provided by the southbound lanes right outside his office window. Steve McDaniel's bees thrive in the shadow of the roadway and produce a flavorful honey.
With more than 100,000 cars using it daily, the JFX is Baltimore's highest-volume road, its central artery.
"It's hard to believe there was a time when the JFX wasn't there," says former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, who championed an extension of the expressway into downtown and whose father, the mayor in 1956, broke ground for the road.
The 9.7-mile expressway brought the city and suburbs closer together, nourishing a wedge of prosperity — and providing an exodus route for thousands of families seeking bigger yards and better schools.
"It helped shape the modern city and shaped development around it. Lutherville, Timonium, Hunt Valley would never have grown to the level they did without it," says Frank Murphy, the city's deputy transportation director, who remembers playing with scrap metal from the then-unfinished Northern Parkway interchange in the early 1960s.
But without the expressway bringing office workers south each day, "the region would be centered on the Beltway and downtown would be something like Camden, N.J.," says Charles Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a neighborhood planning and development nonprofit group. "The JFX kept us in the game."
Instead of becoming a blighted shell like Camden, others say, Baltimore could have faced a different kind of urban nightmare without the expressway.
"Baltimore without the JFX would be a hodgepodge of streets, all filled with trucks. Trucks in every neighborhood. Imagine that. It would be awful," D'Alesandro says.
Duff goes further: "Without the expressway, we would have cooked Charles Village, Mount Vernon, Station North and downtown itself in traffic. It would have been impossible to sustain and grow good neighborhoods."
Now, the expressway appears to be bringing people back to city neighborhoods to live. Murphy says the increase in traffic volume is actually growing faster for "reverse commuters" than traditional inbound-in-the-morning and outbound-at-night travel. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has made it a goal to get 10,000 families to move into the city during the next decade.
"More and more people are living in Canton, in Fells Point, in Hampden and working in the suburbs," Murphy says.
Adds Duff: "What it shows is that the downtown is working, that the downtown is becoming a desirable place to live for childless couples."
Talk of an expressway began during World War II. By 1951, city planners had sketches to show voters, who a year later approved $10 million toward the road. Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. promised that the highway would "be of material assistance in reviving downtown Baltimore."
The original concept included bus pull-offs and a transit line down the center of the road. To avoid uprooting industry and destroying entire neighborhoods, the JFX was placed in the Jones Falls stream valley, in the footprint of an older roadway. Nonetheless, communities such as Ruxton and Roland Park howled at the thought of a six-lane highway running nearby.
From groundbreaking to completion of the first three miles — Charles Street at Oliver to Falls Road — the project took nearly five years. The Sun hailed it as a "superhighway" and noted that motorists "were cautious and even timid … few maintained the 50 mph speeds which are allowed."