The effort to ease one of the worst bottlenecks in East Coast holiday travel, the I-95 toll plaza at Newark, Del., is wrapping up ahead of schedule. There’s a good chance that drivers getting away from the D.C. area this July Fourth weekend will find the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes open.
The Delaware Department of Transportation is working this week on some technical issues involving the transponder-reading gantries over the new lanes and completing the lane striping.
Project managers “are anticipating short-term closures as they tighten and adjust the calibrations of things,” said Mike Williams, a transportation department spokesman.
The federal stimulus project was targeted for completion in August, but pretty much everything has gone right, Williams said. While work is not completely done, drivers now are getting the part they care about: two new lanes on the left side in each direction that can handle electronic toll collection at highway speeds.
Williams wasn’t making any guarantees, but he said project managers are hoping to have those lanes fully operational for this weekend’s holiday traffic.
Looking ahead, Thanksgiving time just won’t be the same if we can’t share horror stories about hours-long waits to get through that toll plaza, or exchange our favorite avoidance strategies. But the good news about the lane openings comes with a few cautions.
“Don’t expect things to be supersonic fast,” Williams said.
In the short-term, it probably will take motorists a while to get used to this new alignment. (Many of these drivers are on long trips, and use the plaza rarely, so the experience won’t become routine.)
Watch for the new overhead signs and the new lane-striping approaching the toll plaza. While all lanes at the plaza accept E-ZPass, there’s no sense getting in a cash lane if you have a transponder, so E-ZPass users will want to stay left well before they reach the plaza.
Stay alert. Some drivers without passes may be zoned out, just following the cars ahead of them, and not realize till the last moment that they’re in an E-ZPass-only lane. While it’s somewhere between foolhardy and fatal for drivers to swerve or back up to get out of the lane, that doesn’t mean they won’t try it.
Over the long-run, drivers — especially holiday weekend drivers — still may experience some delays. The new lanes will make it “more like a typical toll plaza,” Williams said.
I think I got a taste of that myself on Sunday, heading south on I-95 in Delaware. I was in stop and go traffic for about six miles, starting well before the rebuilt welcome center in the highway median. It was the worst traffic I’d encountered since the last time — about a decade ago — that I tried that trip on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
When I reached the toll plaza, I was a dismayed to see that the two highway speed lanes on the left were open. Yes, at that point, it was clear sailing through the tolls, but was the previous delay going to be the new normal for a summer weekend?
Williams said the southbound E-ZPass lanes didn’t open till about 2:30 p.m. Sunday. I was a bit later, so it might have been the residual delay. As I looked to the northbound side, where the new lanes also were open, I saw no such backup approaching the tolls.
But Williams cautioned that when the traffic volumes are extremely heavy, drivers still may find themselves in very slow traffic before the lanes split.. Once E-ZPass drivers reach the split, they will have open road ahead as they look right and wave to the drivers waiting in the cash lanes, he said.
But this is still a baby version of the rebuilt toll plaza at the south end of the New Jersey Turnpike. That nearby project was a breakthrough for East Coast travel. The reconstruction in Delaware is unlikely to have the same effect, but still should ease travel time and frustration for thousands of drivers.