Advice for southbound Thanksgiving getaways

November 27, 2013

First, a note for next year’s Thanksgiving getaway: Early Tuesday and Wednesday mornings looked pretty good on the highways heading away from D.C. Tuesday morning was better than Wednesday morning. Congestion on the outbound highways began to build after 2 p.m.

But for those still waiting to depart, here’s some advice, starting with routes south.

VDOT Thanksgiving travel map shows historical hot spots.
VDOT Thanksgiving travel map shows historical hot spots.

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s review of historical traffic data shows that the worst of the Thanksgiving getaway congestion occurs after noon on Wednesdays and after noon on Saturday and Sunday.

VDOT lifts lane closings during the five-day Thanksgiving travel period, resuming at noon Monday, but drivers still may encounter rough patches, narrowed lanes and lane shifts as they pass through big work zones.

The High Occupancy Vehicle restrictions on Interstates 66, 95 and 395 will be lifted on Thanksgiving, but the regular rules are in effect on Wednesday and Friday. The I-95 reversible lanes will be open southbound from 1 p.m. Wednesday until midnight Thursday. The lanes will reopen northbound by 2 a.m. Thursday and will remain northbound through 11 a.m. Friday. They reopen southbound by 1 p.m. Friday and remain southbound through 2 p.m. Saturday. Finally, they reopen northbound by 4 p.m. Saturday and remain northbound for the rest of the weekend.

Traditional hot spots

Use this link to see a VDOT map of historical congestion during the Thanksgiving period. Notice that one of the very worst places to be on the afternoon and evening of Thanksgiving eve is on I-95 between the Capital Beltway and Fredericksburg. Congestion usually eases greatly by about 8:30 p.m. I-66 tends to be in decent shape after about 6:30 p.m.

Drivers also can expect congestion at the I-81/77 interchange near Wytheville, I-81 near Lexington to south of Roanoke and I-64 near Richmond.

Gainesville can be a bottleneck on Route 29, site of one of Virginia’s biggest road projects, but the Virginia Department of Transportation has opened a new bridge separating Route 29 drivers from the railroad tracks.

Routes to other towns farther south and west also can be congested. The traffic generated by the annual Thanksgiving Saturday game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Virginia Cavaliers will be in Charlottesville this year.

If you’re planning to swing west and take Route 29 to Route 17 before coming back to I-95 around Fredericksburg, frequent commenter 1995hoo notes that there’s a new traffic pattern to get onto Route 17. Driving southbound through Opal on Route 29, the new exit is on right after the traffic light. “Portable message boards say ignore GPS!” he writes.

Travel information

Virginia and most other East Coast states are part of the 511 information system. Motorists can dial 511 from within the states and get up-to-date information on travel conditions.

Before starting, check the Capital Weather Gang forecast for updates.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Dana Hedgpeth | November 27, 2013