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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 10:01 AM ET, 12/22/2011

Getaway guide for Maryland and beyond

We looked at the Christmas getaway through Virginia. Now, let’s talk about the great fan-out through Maryland and points north and west, starting with one of the questions from Monday’s online chat that set the theme.

Heading north this weekend?

“We need to be Vermont this weekend. Are better off leaving Friday or Saturday. Have a Happy Holiday.”

DG: I said during the chat that Saturday is likely to be better in general, but the exact time is important.On a long drive up to Vermont on Friday, you’re going to encounter somebody’s getaway/rush hour/mall traffic.

Leaving real early Saturday — notice the traveler above who was thinking about 5 a.m. Saturday — would probably do the trick. (But everybody, be sure to check the forecast for the entire route.

Weather

While the D.C. region is in for on-and-off rain over the next few days, it will be mild. If you’re heading into New England, or through the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the rain you see at the start of your trip could be freezing rain or snow just a few hours into your travels.

Some are planning getaways that involve driving through the night, when the mild daytime temperatures can drop significantly. Check the car’s fluid levels and make sure you’ve got an ice scraper on board.

Follow the updates from the Capital Weather Gang.

Road work

The Maryland State Highway Administration will suspend scheduled road work from 3 p.m. Thursday through 9 a.m. Tuesday, then again from 3 p.m. Dec. 29 through 9 a.m. Jan. 3.

The long-term construction zones will remain in place. So for example, drivers just starting out still will encounter the lane shifts and narrowings at the Northwest Branch bridge on the Capital Beltway between University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. So remain cautious, and if you need an extra reason, Maryland speed cameras can be operating at any time in the long-term construction zones.

Traffic patterns

Look for extra traffic Thursday and Friday along the highways that tend to get crowded for any weekend getaway. That includes the approaches to the tolls at the Fort McHenry Tunnel on Interstate 95 in Baltimore, the toll plaza north of the Susquehanna River bridge, the nearby Route 40 bridge over the Susquehanna, I-270 near the Capital Beltway and near the junction with I-70 in Frederick.

Timing

Traffic congestion at Christmas is less predictable than at Thanksgiving because people have more flexibility with their schedules. Many families will relax at home on Christmas morning or go to a local church service, then head off for a visit with relatives.

“In general,” said David Buck, spokesman for the State Highway Administration, “the only predictable day for heavy congestion is Christmas Day between about 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.”

But he also noted that over the next several days, there will be congestion around malls and other shopping areas, including all day Saturday.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, the Redskins play their final home game of the year at FedEx Field off the Capital Beltway in Landover. Through traffic should stay left around the Landover Road, Arena Drive and Central Avenue interchanges.

This time of year, Buck said, the more significant issues for travelers have to do with the weather.

Using the Intercounty Connector

At Thanksgiving time, I suggested that drivers consider the Intercounty Connector as a link between I-270 in the Gaithersburg area and I-95 around Laurel. For many on the west side of the D.C. region, the connector could become a reliable shortcut to Baltimore Washington International Marshall Airport or points beyond. It allows drivers to skip the trip south to the far more congested Capital Beltway.

Well, the connector is still in the same place and just as useful as a reliable shortcut, but it’s no longer free. The tolls are back in place.

Beyond Maryland

There’s much less congestion now at what formerly was one of the worst holiday choke points on the East Coast: the I-95 toll plaza at Newark, Del. That’s because Delaware opened four highway-speed E-Zpass lanes over the summer. Stay left as you approach the toll plaza to use the new lanes.

Farther up the line heading northeast, drivers may encounter some extra congestion on the New Jersey Turnpike in the middle of the state. The turnpike is being widened between exits 6 and 9, and the existing lanes narrow and shift at various points. The speed limit is 55 mph. (It will remind many drivers of the Beltway work zone for the high-occupancy toll lanes in Virginia.)

Breezewood, Pa.: During an earlier discussion about getaways, I was bemoaning that other getaway delayer, the missing link between I-70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, at Breezewood.

Longtime commenter 1995hoo wrote in with some helpful suggestions on that.

“Two possible alternatives to Breezewood, which can be a pain (even more so coming from Pittsburgh if the E-ZPass lane is all the way to the right as it often is):

“(a) Exit at Bedford (the exit before Breezewood) and go a short distance south to US-30. Take that east to Breezewood and turn right onto I-70. You avoid the toll plaza backup.

“(b) Exit at Bedford and take US-220 south to I-68 just east of Cumberland. I assume most people know about the I-68 route as an alternative to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s a good route, but some people are justifiably wary of the more mountainous portions in bad weather.

“Taking the US-220 route avoids the really mountainous portions between Morgantown and Cumberland. (US-220 is a two-lane road, but it’s a pretty good one and a quick trip. Remember to turn on your headlights so that people going the other way can see you more easily if they’re thinking about pulling out to pass. Always use your headlights on two-lane roads regardless of the weather or time of day.)”

Travel resources

Maryland this year joined the states using the 511 travel information system. Travelers can get current information about traffic conditions by visiting the Maryland Web site at 511md.org.

The information also is available by calling 511 from a mobile phone in the state. Use this link to the Maryland 511 Twitter feed. But please either pull over or ask a passenger to do the mobile phone work.

By  |  10:01 AM ET, 12/22/2011

Categories:  Getaways

 
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