FreightWaves Classics / Infrastructure: Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway opened 64 years ago today


On that date in 1957, the 1.4 mile four-lane harbor tunnel opened. It passes under the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland. The tunnel ended the need for vehicles to use the streets of Baltimore, avoiding 51 traffic lights. Before the tunnel opened, travel through the city streets was known as the “Baltimore bottleneck” for East Coast traffic. Today, 64 years later, more than 25 million vehicles use the tunnel each year.

The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway is signed as Interstate 895 (I-985). It connects a junction with I-95 at Elkridge and another interchange with I-95 on the east side of Baltimore. “I-895 is a toll road that crosses the Patapsco River estuary via the Baltimore Port Tunnel, connecting US Route 1 (US 1), I-695, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in the southern suburbs -West of Baltimore with US 40 east beside Baltimore. With a pair of spurs (I-895A and I-895B unsigned), I-895 provides access to the harbor tunnel from I-97 and Maryland Route 2 (MD 2) at Glen Burnie. The motorway was designed for through traffic; it has partial interchanges that force vehicles from almost any point of departure (the two northernmost exits are the exceptions) to pass through the port tunnel and its toll booth before leaving the facility.

The entrance to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.  (Photo: www.mdta.maryland.gov)
The entrance to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. (Photo: www.mdta.maryland.gov)

The Thruway has a pair of two-lane highway tunnels that connect the major north / south freeways and several arteries in industrial sections of Baltimore. Including the tunnel access roads, I-895 is approximately 18.5 miles long.

The tunnels are 7.650 feet (1.45 miles) long and each tunnel is 22 feet wide and 14 feet high. Both tunnels accommodate two lanes in each direction at a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. Two-way traffic can occur in either tunnel due to road works or in an emergency. The tunnels are equipped with lane control signals to control which lanes are open, closed or used as countercurrent traffic.

Vehicles over 13 feet, 6 inches high or 96 inches (8 feet) wide; and all double trailers are prohibited from using the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. No hazardous materials are allowed in the tunnel.

Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway restrictions sign.  (Photo: rvblogger.com)
Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway restrictions sign. (Photo: rvblogger.com)

Both tunnels are fitted with fans to replace the air inside the tunnels; fresh air is drawn in through the floors of the tunnels and exhausted through their ceilings. The tunnels range from a depth of 50 feet underground to 101 feet underground.

Story

Construction of a Patapsco River crossing south of downtown Baltimore was considered in the 1930s, but the Great Depression and World War II put all plans on hold. In the early 1950s, the Maryland State Roads Commission voted to build the Harbor Tunnel between the boroughs of Baltimore, Canton and Fairfield, as well as approach freeways to connect the tunnel to major freeways to Washington, DC, Annapolis, Richmond and Philadelphia.

Singstad and Baillie, a New York-based engineering company specializing in tunnel design, and JE Greiner, a Baltimore-based company, designed the tunnel and its approaches. Construction began in 1955. The tunnel consisted of 21 sections (310 feet long) which were individually submerged in the harbor and secured with rocks and fill. The first tunnel segment was sunk on April 11, 1956. The remainder of the tunnel was constructed using the “cut and cover method, stretching from submerged tubes to the north and south portals”. The cost of the project was $ 150 million ($ 1.382 billion today).

Construction of the Baltimore Port Tunnel in 1955 (Photo: Maryland Transportation Authority)
Construction of the Baltimore Port Tunnel in 1955 (Photo: Maryland Transportation Authority)

As noted above, the tunnel opened on November 29, 1957. It was opened by the Governor of Maryland, Theodore McKeldin; a crowd of 4000 spectators was present. At the time of its inauguration, the tunnel was the fifth longest underwater vehicle tunnel in the world.

The toll for standard cars at that time was $ 0.40. During the first 12 hours of operation of the tunnel, approximately 10,000 vehicles passed through it. During this period, the tunnel’s first collision took place (15 minutes after opening), as did its first puncture and its first broken down vehicle.

Vehicles pass through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel during its first decade.  (Photo: Maryland Transportation Authority)
Vehicles pass through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel during its first decade.
(Photo: Maryland Transportation Authority)

With the tunnel open and in use, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) noted that not only were the 51 traffic lights avoided by traffic, but they also reduced commercial traffic on neighborhood streets by up to 40%.

In the early 1960s, the Harbor Tunnel Thruway was connected to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, then to I-95 South in the early 1970s. Because of these connections, I-895 carried most of the traffic. of traffic passing through Baltimore. This led to a volume of traffic and congestion that was only relieved when I-95 via Baltimore was completed when the eight-lane Fort McHenry tunnel opened in November 1985.

Recent construction and rehabilitation

The newer tunnel was the last link to the Maryland portion of Interstate 95. Shifting most of the traffic to the new tunnel allowed the Port of Baltimore tunnel to be partially closed for further maintenance in March. 1987 which continued until the full reopening of the tunnel in 1990.

The MDTA launched a multi-year project in November 2018 to replace the spans of the I-895 bridge north of the port tunnel. The $ 189 million project budget included $ 28 million for tunnel repairs and upgrades.

Information on the improvements has been made public by the MDTA.  (Photo: MDTA)
Information on the improvements has been made public by the MDTA. (Photo: MDTA)

tolls

As of July 1, 2015, the toll rate for cars is $ 4.00 cash or $ 3.00 E-ZPass, paid both ways. Vehicles with more than two axles pay additional amounts (3 axles – $ 8; 4 axles – $ 12; 5 axles – $ 24; and 6-axles + – $ 30). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fully electronic tolling was implemented in March 2020. Tolls are payable through E-ZPass or Video Tolling, which uses automatic license plate recognition (truck tolls are 50% higher when video toll is used). Fully electronic tolling became permanent in August 2020.

Information on the improvements has been made public by the MDTA.  (Photo: MDTA)
The information was released by the Maryland Transportation Authority when new tolls for trucks were introduced. (Image: MDTA)

At 64, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway has kept traffic off the city streets for more than three generations.