Omnes viae Baltimoram ducunt?

A 52-mile-long freeway that encircles the city of Baltimore, Maryland, connecting the roads that radiate from the city, providing access from one Baltimore suburb to another, as well as allowing people entering or leaving the city in one direction the chance to choose a more convenient direction.

At the end of World War II, most of the major roads in central Maryland led directly into Baltimore. Development just outside the city limits was beginning to take off, and Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County began to experience traffic problems. Furthermore, since none of the City's suburbs were incorporated, it was up to the counties to deliver basic governmental services. Since the roads connecting the suburbs to the City were better than the ones connecting to each other, providing such services was difficult.

Around 1949, Baltimore County highway planners conceived of a highway to connect the suburbs within that county. Baltimore wasn't unique in this; many cities across the United States had the same issues to deal with, and were considering similar solutions.

Baltimore County's plan existed only as lines drawn on a map until 1953, when the State Roads Commission took it over. Sections of the Beltway began appearing in Glen Burnie and Towson in 1954 and 1955. By 1962, the road extended 3/4 of the way around the city, from Governor Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie clockwise to Race Road in Rosedale.

Construction of the Beltway stalled in the 1960s as local resistance frustrated planners' attempts to turn other lines drawn on maps into reality. A number of planned freeways in Southeast Baltimore would have destroyed the closely-knit neighborhoods of Fells Point and Canton. The fierce battle that residents put up was eventually a successful one, cancelling the construction of numerous planned links and spurring the political career of Barbara Mikulski.

In the meantime, planners really wanted the rest of the Beltway to be finished, but that required the construction of an "Outer Harbor Crossing" across the Patapsco River estuary. Local railroads and shipping interests thought that bridges were bad for business, and pushed for a tunnel crossing similar to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel (completed in 1953). But when the State finally started taking bids in the early 1970s, it became apparent that a bridge would be much cheaper to build. This decision was easily made, and construction of the final section of the Beltway began in the mid-1970's. The loop was finally completed when the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge opened in 1977.

As happened with most projects of this sort, construction of the Beltway created as many problems as it solved. It spurred development away from the city center and probably helped contribute to the rapid depopulation of the city in the decades that followed. Development rapidly absorbed the additional traffic capacity created, and along with the cancellation of other planned links, this allowed certain sections of the Beltway to back up with traffic every single day. On aggregate, however, traffic on the Baltimore Beltway is nowhere near as bad as the traffic on its counterpart to the southwest, the Capital Beltway. One hopes that no other traffic hells like that are ever spawned.

The Beltway has, however, succeeded in its goal of providing alternatives to driving through the city, as well as connecting Baltimore's suburbs. The Beltway can now be called "Baltimore County's Main Street" without anyone arguing over it.

Although signed as Interstate 695, the Beltway is properly an "interstate" for only 3/4 of its length. Sections built up to 1962 are under the jurisdiction of the State Highway Administration, and maintained with Federal funds. Later sections are maintained by the Maryland Transportation Authority using the tolls collected at its various facilities. USDOT allows these sections to be signed as I-695 to avoid confusion.

Starting at the southern end of the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge, at the southern extreme of Baltimore, going clockwise:

Explanation of sizes:
  • National links
  • Regional links
  • major local links
  • minor local links
  • river crossing

Experience with the damn thing would probably have provided enough information for a decent writeup, but I consulted various maps and other sources, including:

Location Studies: Chesapeake Bay Crossings. State Roads Commission of Maryland, J. E. Greiner & Co., January 1964

MDRoads: A Guide to Maryland highways

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