On this date in 1957, the 1.4-mile, four-lane Harbor Tunnel opened. It crosses under the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland. The tunnel ended the need for vehicles to use Baltimore streets, thereby avoiding 51 traffic signals. Before the tunnel opened, traveling on city streets was known as the “Baltimore Bottleneck” for East Coast traffic. Today, 64 years later, more than 25 million vehicles use the tunnel annually.
The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway is signed as Interstate 895 (I-985). It runs between a junction with I-95 in 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 Harbor Tunnel, connecting U.S. Route 1 (US 1), I-695 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in the southwestern suburbs of Baltimore with US 40 on the east side of Baltimore.” With a pair of spurs (unsigned I-895A and I-895B), I-895 provides access to the Harbor Tunnel from I-97 and Maryland Route 2 (MD 2) in Glen Burnie. The highway was designed for through traffic; it has partial interchanges that require vehicles from almost all starting points (the two northernmost exits are the exceptions) to pass through the Harbor Tunnel and its toll plaza before exiting the facility.
The Thruway has a pair of two-lane road tunnels that connect major north/south highways and several arterial routes in Baltimore’s industrial sections. Including the tunnel’s approach roadways, 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 may occur in either tunnel due to roadwork or during emergencies. The tunnels have lane control signals to control which lanes are open, closed or used as contra-flow traffic.
Vehicles more than 13 feet, 6 inches in height, or 96 inches (8 feet) in width; and all double trailers are prohibited from using the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. No hazardous materials are permitted in the tunnel.
Both tunnels have ventilation fans in place to replace the air within the tunnels; fresh air is drawn in through the tunnels’ floors and exhausted through their ceilings. The tunnels range from a depth of 50 feet below ground to 101 feet below ground.
Building a crossing of the Patapsco River south of downtown Baltimore was studied in the 1930s, but the Great Depression and World War II put any plans on hold. In the early 1950s, the Maryland State Roads Commission voted to construct the Harbor Tunnel between Baltimore’s Canton and Fairfield neighborhoods, as well as approach highways to connect the tunnel with major highways to Washington, D.C., Annapolis, Richmond and Philadelphia.
Singstad and Baillie, a New York-based engineering firm specializing in tunnel design, and the J. E. Greiner Company, a Baltimore-based firm, designed the tunnel and its approaches. Construction began in 1955. The tunnel was formed from 21 sections (310-feet long) that were individually submerged into the harbor and secured with rocks and backfill. The first tunnel segment was sunk on April 11, 1956. The rest of the tunnel was built using the “cut-and-cover method, extending from the submerged tubes to the north and south portals.” The cost of the project was $150 million ($1.382 billion today).
As noted above, the tunnel opened on November 29, 1957. It was dedicated by Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin; a crowd of 4,000 spectators were on hand. At the time of its dedication, the tunnel was the fifth-longest underwater vehicular tunnel in the world.
The toll for standard cars at that time was $0.40. During the tunnel’s first 12 hours of operation, an estimated 10,000 vehicles passed through it. During that period, the tunnel’s first collision took place (15 minutes after opening), as did its first flat tire and first stalled vehicle.
With the tunnel open and in use, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) noted that not only were the 51 traffic signals avoided by traffic, it 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 and then to I-95 South in the early 1970s. Because of these connections, I-895 carried the bulk of the through traffic passing through Baltimore. This led to traffic volume and congestion that was not relieved until I-95 through Baltimore was completed when the eight-lane Fort McHenry Tunnel opened in November 1985.
Newer construction and rehabilitation
The newer tunnel was the last link of Maryland’s portion of Interstate 95. The transfer of most traffic to the new tunnel allowed the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel to be partially shut down for extensive maintenance in March 1987 that continued until the tunnel was fully reopened in 1990.
The MDTA began a multi-year project in November 2018 to replace the I-895 bridge spans north of the Harbor Tunnel. The $189 million project budget included $28 million for tunnel repairs and upgrades.
As of July 1, 2015, the toll rate for cars is $4.00 cash or $3.00 E-ZPass, paid in both directions. Vehicles with more than two axles pay additional amounts (3-axle – $8; 4-axle – $12; 5-axle – $24; and 6-axle+ – $30). Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all-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 tolling is used). All-electronic tolling was made permanent in August 2020.
At 64 years of age, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway has carried vehicle traffic away from city streets for more than three generations.