Frances Miller has been commuting from her Middle River home to Anne Arundel County for years — she used the Francis Scott Key Bridge to get there every Tuesday through Thursday. On her first commute since its collapse on March 26, she accidentally started driving toward the bridge out of habit.

With the bridge, her morning trip used to take 30 to 40 minutes. Wednesday, it took her about 40 minutes just to make it from her front door to the Interstate 95 tunnel, she said.

The collapse of the Key Bridge has scrambled the morning and evening commutes for Baltimore-area residents, eliminating a major Patapsco River crossing while leaving a gaping hole in Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway. The area’s road network was further tested last week by the return of students to classrooms after spring break.

While the Key Bridge carried far less daily traffic than the two other river crossings — the I-95 Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Interstate 895 Harbor Tunnel Thruway — roughly 30,000 drivers have had to find new ways to get to their destinations.

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The closure has put more pressure on the city’s two tunnels as well as the Beltway, with many trucks prohibited from using the tunnels now having to take the long way around to get to Interstate 95.

State officials urged drivers in a tweet last week to “allow extra travel time” when hitting the road during rush hour.

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Will this become the new normal until the Key Bridge is rebuilt? Not necessarily, say transportation experts.

In an emailed statement, the State Highway Administration said it has been monitoring commute times along alternate routes. The agency said the return of students return from spring break and last week’s inclement weather, including rain and thunderstorms, increased congestion on area roads.

Flooding even shrunk a three-lane section of Pulaski Highway heading into the city from eastern Baltimore County down to just one drivable lane on Wednesday.

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On March 26 — the day of the bridge collapse — car speeds on nearby roads were up to 90% slower than the previous week, said Vincent Martinier, a communications executive at TomTom, a mapping and location technology company that has access to anonymous reporting data from more than 600 million devices worldwide, including cars and cellphones.

But though speeds were down that day, Martinier said, fewer cars were on the road and congestion levels were manageable. “So whether people just decided to or anticipated possible bottlenecks or congestion, people probably changed their routines,” Martinier said.

He said he had yet to take a close look at the numbers from last week.

Several readers who live northeast of Baltimore along the I-95 corridor, however, told The Banner that they had experienced significant delays last week.

Some said they were stuck in traffic waiting to use one of the tunnels; one respondent who’d never used the bridge saw her drive time double.

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Others found a way around the traffic jams.

Chris Lerch, who lives in Northwood by Morgan State University, used to take the Key Bridge to get to his job teaching in Anne Arundel County. By cutting through Baltimore City, he still managed to keep his commute to around 35 minutes. But his trip time depended heavily on when he left the house in the morning — even a 15-minute delay getting out the door could leave him stuck in traffic.

“Every day it will tell me to go a different way,” Lerch said of mobile apps such as Waze and Google Maps.

The tunnels aren’t the only source of bottlenecks.

I-695 west of Baltimore will see more traffic because certain trucks are prohibited from using the tunnels based on size or what they are hauling, such as hazardous materials. Bad weather plus tunnel bottlenecks left sections of I-95 approaching Baltimore from the south at a near standstill.

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“In theory I thought, ‘Clearly this won’t have any impact on me,” said Kelsie Goodwin of Locust Point. But she said her typical 50-minute commute home from Gaithersburg in Montgomery County nearly doubled.

Goodwin said the drive was fine until just north of the I-95 interchange with I-695, which is also a construction zone. From there to her exit, she said, she rarely drove at a speed higher than a couple miles per hour.

In an article for Slate Business, MIT fellow David Zipper predicted that the Baltimore region will soon see the opposite of what’s called “induced demand,” a phenomenon resulting from road widening in which congestion actually gets worse because more people are incentivized to take that route.

He cited examples of road disasters leading to predictions of heavy congestion, or “carmageddon.” When a section of I-95 in the Philadelphia area was closed because of a bridge collapse last year, people assumed their commutes were doomed. Time passed, but carmageddon never came, data showed.

It all comes down to being able to adapt, Zipper wrote — can you leave the house earlier or later? Can you hop on public transit or carpool with a coworker?

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Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld told reporters on Wednesday that his agency was looking at ways to bolster regional transit service and to promote ride sharing. The SHA has also adjusted some traffic signals outside of the city limits and was evaluating other areas where similar adjustments could be made to ease congestion.

“Major construction obviously takes time, so we have to give these softer things [a try] first, then focus on the larger project of rebuilding the bridge,” Wiedefeld said.

Kristina Stotler of Joppatowne in Harford County said she spent roughly two hours getting to work one morning last week, a far cry from what was more like a 45-minute trip to Millersville in Anne Arundel County prior to the bridge collapse.

“The Key Bridge was almost a guarantee that you weren’t going to hit traffic,” said Stotler, who used the bridge specifically to avoid the I-895 tunnel for years. “It was just a better experience.”

The wreckage of the Key Bridge collapse, with the Domino Sugar factory in the foreground, is seen from the Baltimore World Trade Center on Saturday, April 6, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Stotler hoped she could swap the worst of her new drive for a ride on a MARC commuter train, which she could take from Edgewood to Odenton. But MARC’s departure times aren’t convenient for her work schedule, she said, and getting to her company’s office from the Odenton station would still require getting a ride or calling a taxi.

Lerch is skeptical of his transit options, too. “It’s sort of hard to get to Glen Burnie by bus. You can do it, but it would take you forever,” the North Baltimore resident said.

Many who spoke with The Banner said they are open to carpooling, and hope that their employers will allow for more flexibility in scheduling, such as eased telework policies or adjusted clock-in/clock-out hours. But as multiple teachers who spoke with The Banner pointed out, not everyone has the privilege of being able to work from home.

Martinier said it will take some time to collect enough data to see if Baltimore’s road network is up to the task. At this point, he is confident that it can handle it handle the displaced traffic once enough people adjust to life without the Key Bridge, which will likely take years to rebuild.

Goodwin, of Locust Point, sure hopes the network can hold — last week was a rude, rainy awakening. Of last week’s congestion, she said, “I don’t really think this is sustainable.”

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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