Tasha Gresham-James steers her black Nissan Rogue through Dundalk’s rush-hour traffic. Even with the windows closed, the pungent odor of diesel fuel is hard to miss, as are the single-family houses that sit cheek by jowl with truck parking lots, bars, manufacturing and transit facilities — even a driver training school.

On and on, through main roads like Holabird and Dundalk avenues, and alleyways not much wider than driveways, trucks lumber through residential neighborhoods.

“We’re on a one-lane road, as you can see, and look at how many trucks are coming this way,” said Gresham-James, executive director of Dundalk Renaissance, a community development organization, as she navigated around the communities adjacent to Tradepoint Atlantic. “I’ve already seen more traffic on Merritt Boulevard in the last two weeks than I have in the past. And it’s just because, how will they get to the part of 695 that they need to if there’s no bridge?”

Long before a container ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, causing it to collapse into the Patapsco River, truck drivers were routing themselves through neighborhoods on the Anne Arundel and Baltimore County sides of the river as well as through the city. Some did so because of prohibitions on hazardous materials in the city’s two tunnels and occasional high winds on the continuous truss bridge, but others did so because it shaved minutes off their trip.

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Broening Manor, St. Helena, German Hill, Colgate Park and Turner Station are among the many neighborhoods whose narrow streets have become accustomed to lumbering trucks. The heavy equipment damages the roads, with pond-sized potholes common, and fixes come slowly, despite funds that are supposed to be set aside for such repairs.

Residents and community leaders in these neighborhoods worry that the loss of a bridge used by trucks coming from and going to the Port of Baltimore will lead to more trucks — and their corresponding diesel emissions — on their local streets. More than a nuisance, the increased volume is also a public health hazard that disproportionately harms lower-income residents and people of color.

Diesel engines, which many trucks use, emit higher concentrations of pollutants than their gasoline-engine counterparts. According to the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, those pollutants include benzene, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and formaldehyde. Diesel engines also produce 26% of the total nitrogen from outdoor air, which contributes to breathing problems as it increases smog and becomes a major cause of algal blooms as it settles into the Chesapeake Bay. The greatest concentration of these toxic chemicals, which cause lung and heart problems and can also affect fertility, show up closest to busy streets and highways with truck traffic. Trucks, especially when they’re idle, emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide, in addition to noise pollution.

Gresham-James has been talking to the port about its plans for a greener operation, which would include electric vehicles and far less toxicity in the air and decreasing idling wait times. But plans to electrify the port and the trucks that rely on it remain years away.

The collapse of the Key Bridge, which left six construction workers dead, also separated two ends of Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway. The bridge carried 30,000 vehicles a day, many of them trucks, including those carrying hazardous materials that are prohibited in the Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels. It was also a popular route for drivers traveling between Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

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The accident shut down many operations at the Port of Baltimore, the notable exception being Tradepoint Atlantic. Located roughly 2 miles beyond the wreckage, the logistics hub on Sparrows Point has the only deep-water port unaffected by the bridge collapse. It is busier than ever, but trucks that stop there no longer have access to the Key Bridge. They can leave the area by hopping onto I-695 east of the fallen bridge or by cutting through Dundalk’s neighborhoods to get to Interstate 95 or downtown.

Brandon Maynard, a Kentucky trucker, stops in Dundalk for fuel before heading home with his daughter, Abby, who was on spring break. Maynard said he does drive his rig through neighborhoods on occasion, where passing is tight. (Rona Kobell/Rona Kobell)

Brandon Maynard, a long-haul trucker for Avant-Garde Management Group who lives in Eastern Kentucky, said he has been driving through the residential neighborhoods around Rolling Mill Road in Dundalk for years. He predicted he’d have to continue to do that to get through the intense traffic clogging up the port. His company, which delivers deck boards for remodeling, delivers a lot of loads to Dundalk.

“It gets tight,” said Maynard, who was traveling last week with his daughter, Abby, who was on spring break. “It’s more than a little bit uncomfortable on the residential streets. It’s a lot uncomfortable.”

A Baltimore County Police Department spokesman said that it remains illegal for trucks to drive down streets with signs prohibiting them, and that officers will issue citations, but they cannot be everywhere at once.

A few years ago, Gresham-James said, Baltimore County tried to study where to place the weight restriction signs for trucks. The county installed cameras to watch truck traffic, but never activated the cameras. With no live feed to evaluate the traffic, the county didn’t have the best information for its signage. As for why the county didn’t activate the cameras, Gresham-James said it was a lack of communication.

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“There was no plan to actually say, ‘How do we enforce this? How do we do this? It was like, for months on end, the cameras just sitting there,” she said.

D’Andrea Walker, who served as Baltimore County’s director of public works and transportation before assuming the No. 2 county post earlier this week, said she was unaware of the cameras not working, though it may have happened before her tenure. She’d led the department since 2020; during that time, she said, the county focused on the truck traffic issues in Dundalk, particularly along Wise Avenue not far from the Costas Inn, a seafood restaurant. Walker said she recently met with officials from the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation to discuss what she expects will be an increase of truck traffic through Dundalk’s communities.

Dundalk Renaissance is collaborating with the Greater Baybrook Alliance, a community development organization focused on the neighborhoods around Curtis Bay, on how to reduce the impact of truck traffic on neighborhoods. Like Dundalk, which is partly in Baltimore City and partly in Baltimore County, the Baybrook neighborhoods — Curtis Bay, Brooklyn and Brooklyn Park — straddle the Baltimore City/Anne Arundel County line.

The Greater Baybrook Alliance has been seeking to partner with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation since well before the bridge collapse to reconfigure some neighborhood roadways and funnel trucks away from main streets with homes and businesses.

A sign in Dundalk warns that trucks over 5 tons are not allowed, but drivers often travel on these streets anyway. (Rona Kobell/Rona Kobell)

Crews have been working to remove bridge debris from the port’s shipping channel, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said it expects full traffic to be restored by the end of May.

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Meredith Chaiken, executive director of the Greater Baybrook Alliance, said that once the port is fully open again, Anne Arundel County could see a huge influx of freight traffic.

The Pumphrey and Brooklyn Park communities will be particularly affected due to Belle Grove Road running directly through them. The road has one lane of traffic in each direction and is positioned between I-695 and I-95. Chaiken also predicted Ritchie Highway, or Route 2, will also see an increase in traffic.

“It could have a major adverse impact on the residents of that area to see an increase in any kind of traffic, but especially freight traffic,” Chaiken said.

She said pedestrians and bicyclists will be extremely vulnerable when there is an increase in trucks. A major concern is that Belle Grove Elementary School sits next to Evan Transportation Inc, a full-service transportation and equipment provider, according to their website.

A Baltimore Banner reporter observed Belle Grove Road on a Tuesday afternoon for one hour and counted 14 trucks pass the elementary school. The roads near the school already lack adequate sidewalks; children and their families walk on the shoulders of the road, Chaiken said.

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“I hope this is not a long-term situation for the community, but increased freight traffic is connected to increases in asthma rates, decreases in lifespan and longevity,” Chaiken said.

Traffic backs up near Arundel Corporation Road, along Route 2 in Glen Burnie on April 9, 2024.
Traffic backs up on Route 2 near Arundel Corporation Road in Glen Burnie on April 9, 2024. (Ned Carey)

Baltimore City has an official truck route map that organizes roads into tiers. Officials want trucks on interstate highways as much as possible, said Louis Campion, president and CEO of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. Next is “through truck routes” on arterial and collector roads. Lowest are local truck routes that drivers are supposed to use only when absolutely necessary. Truckers don’t like driving through neighborhoods any more than residents want them doing so, so he doesn’t predict a major increase in truck traffic in residential settings.

“I know the city is very conscientious about all of those concerns, which is why we developed a truck map in the first place,” Campion said. He said his organization is trying to work with the city to change some local truck routes to through routes, to allow drivers more leeway in using them. What concerns Campion and truckers most is increasing congestion on routes where trucks are now getting diverted.

“We are dealing with a rather significant challenge that everyone is going to be inconvenienced in some capacity as a result of this,” Campion said.

Lifelong Brooklyn Park resident Ned Carey already sees more freight truck traffic, but also 18 wheelers. Motorists were already cutting through northern Anne Arundel communities to avoid beltway traffic, he said; he worries that will become more common now.

The former delegate for District 31A, which includes Brooklyn Park, said the heavier traffic means the roads will need repaving sooner than later. Carey said residents are already seeing more trash being tossed onto Ritchie Highway, which links Baltimore and the Annapolis area.

Said Carey, “That bridge was so vital to moving traffic along the eastern side of Baltimore.”

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