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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 10:54 AM ET, 05/25/2011

Advice for northeast holiday drivers

As we prepare to launch the summer travel season, let’s look at a traditional worry: What’s going to happen as I drive north in the Interstate-95 corridor? This letter came in from a traveler who recently endured the Delaware drive. It’s a sign of things to come.

Dear Dr.Gridlock:

I forgot to check your instructions. I assumed the toll station might be better than at Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t. A three-mile crawl northbound. I beg you to warn people again before the Memorial Day weekend.

Also, the exit from Interstate 95 to cross the bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike was a big backup too because of road work. and work on a bridge just before Philadelphia was also a hold-up but nothing as serious.

A nasty crash on southbound 95 was causing many miles of backup as I came north. I am sure your spies are out but as I sat there waiting for the toll to loom up, I swore I would e-mail you whenever I could.

Yoma Ullman

That bottleneck at the I-95 toll plaza in Newark, Del., hasn’t gone away. I’ll review some of the Delaware dodges, but first, here’s the latest advice from the Delaware Department of Transportation:

Motorists should expect delays and congestion on I-95, beginning Thursday morning and continuing through the summer. Delaware continues to build highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the plaza. The anticipated completion date is Aug. 15. Transportation officials recommend motorists consider alternative routes or travel during hours with lower traffic volumes.

Northbound and southbound toll lanes have been reduced as part of the construction. This reduction affects the manual cash lanes and the dedicated E-ZPass lanes. In both directions, there will be four manned and two designated E-ZPass lanes in operation.

As you approach the toll plaza, tune your radio to WTMC-1380AM for traffic reports. Before starting your trip, check the Delaware Department of Transportation Web site for current traffic conditions.

The Delaware department, like those in the D.C. region, will suspend road work projects for the holiday weekend. Delaware will shut down work from noon Friday till 6 a.m. Tuesday. That will help on some local routes, but won’t make much, if any, difference at the toll plaza.

Alternatives: For the many who hate the tolls and congestion, consider these options:

* Route 50 across the Bay Bridge, to Route 301 to state road 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner Road) to Route 1 and Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge. (For this one, remember that you’re going to encounter the Bay Bridge toll plaza going eastbound, but the Eastern Shore route is a pleasant drive.)

* Baltimore Washington Parkway to I-695 north around the west side of Baltimore to I-83 north to I-81 north, just east of Harrisburg, Pa. Follow I-81 north, then take I-78 east into New Jersey.

* From I-95 north, take Route 279 toward Newark, Del. Turn right onto Iron Hill Road. At the end, turn left onto Chestnut Hill Road. Then turn right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue). I-95 will be a quarter-mile down the road. (This would avoid the Delaware Toll Plaza, where there’s been a lot of congestion lately because of the construction of the high speed E-ZPass lanes.)

On that last one, I got this response from a traveler: “There’s a better way than Iron Hill Road. Christiana Parkway, the first big intersection in Delaware. There’s a bunch of lights and signs saying “Amtrak/SEPTA” pointing right at Christiana. Much less confusing than wandering down Iron Hill I’ve found.”

Here’s some advice from frequent commenter 1995hoo regarding the route through Pennsylvania and into New Jersey: “Depending on where you’re going in New York (e.g., Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn) you might be better-served staying on I-78 from Allentown all the way across New Jersey. Get in the express lanes when the road divides. If you follow I-78 the whole way you’ll go through the Holland Tunnel, but if you’re going to Brooklyn you can exit I-78 at the first exit [14A] after the road becomes the NJ Turnpike extension and then follow the signs to NJ-440 over the Bayonne Bridge, which takes you to I-278 on Staten Island.”

For those who want to vacation while they travel, consider driving about 120 miles from Washington to take the 80-minute ferry ride from Lewes, Del., to Cape May, N.J. Reservations recommended: 800-643-3779 or www.capemaylewesferry.com.

Hatem (Route 40) Bridge

This could be good news for northbound drivers who seek relief from I-95 by taking Route 40: The Maryland Transportation Authority says the project to replace the Hatem Bridge deck is wrapping up. The bridge carries traffic over the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville.

The eastbound single-lane closures were lifted earlier this month, and the westbound closures are scheduled to be lifted Friday..

Commercial vehicle restrictions that have been in effect between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. are to be lifted Friday, giving commercial vehicles with four or more axles access to the bridge 24 hours a day.

Importance of timing

Travelers who share alternative routes point out that there are no undiscovered shortcuts. You may encounter holiday congestion on any route. So timing your getaway for off-hours can be at least as important as choosing a route.

I got advice along those lines from David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration: Holiday travel delays are generally most influenced by when someone travels, weather conditions and incidents, he said.

Estimates about the number of people hitting the road — such as the AAA forecast that 866,562 people from the D.C. region will travel this weekend — are relative: “Relative to whether it is raining, relative to traveling at 4 p.m. on Friday or 6 a.m. Saturday, relative to if there is a disabled truck on the shoulder or relative to the sun glare,” Buck said.

Compared to Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said, Memorial Day holiday travel tends to involve shorter-range trips. Most people tend to go to the beach, to a cookout or maybe to a parade.

Generally speaking the same Interstates that are congested every Friday are even more so the Friday before Memorial Day. However I-97 south toward Annapolis, Route 50 east toward the Bay Bridge, Route 404 toward Delaware, I-70 and I-68 toward Deep Creek and I-95 north toward Delaware tend to take the brunt of the extra traffic.

“The best advice is to avoid traveling during peak holiday travel times if at all possible, have a map (or maps) so if something does happen, you have multiple options, plan ahead using Web sites like www.roads.maryland.com, stay patient as incidents will occur as they do every day of the year, and make driving a full time responsibility,” Buck said.

Worst travel times

The heaviest travel times for Memorial Day traditionally are Friday from 1 to 8 p.m. and most of the day on Monday, with the cookouts, parades and other outdoor activities, Buck noted. Thursday night rush hour is also likely to be heavier than normal. If it rains Friday, motorists should expect more substantial delays but traffic will be heavy Friday no matter what the weather.

Stay updated with the Capital Weather Gang, but the current forecast is for hot weather Sunday through Saturday, with a chance of thunderstorms each day. Sunday and Monday are likely to be partly sunny and hot.

By  |  10:54 AM ET, 05/25/2011

Categories:  Getaways

 
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