Travel advice for holiday eve getaways

December 24, 2013
Traffic on I-95/395
The Virginia Department of Transportation has special holiday rules for the HOV lanes in the middle of I-95/395 (Alex Brandon/AP)

During Monday’s online chat, a traveler asked: “Just how bad do you think I-95 will be [on Christmas Eve] going south to Richmond? I want to be able to get there by 1 p.m., so I figure I better leave before 9.”

File this in notes for next year: That was a smart idea. The morning rush around D.C. was non-existent. The traffic maps and cameras continue to show a smooth ride to Richmond on Tuesday morning.

That’s likely to change as the day advances. I-95 south of the Capital Beltway is often the most congested spot in the D.C. region for getaway traffic.

Here are some last minute reminders for those driving north or south.

Advice for northbound travelers

  • The I-95 alternatives. 1) Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, follow Route 301 to Route 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner roads) to Route 1 (toll) or Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects with the New Jersey Turnpike north to the New York area. This route avoids the Delaware toll plaza and includes some nice Eastern Shore scenery. 2) Baltimore-Washington Parkway or I-95 to I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) 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. There, drivers can take I-287 to I-80, picking up I-95 for the George Washington Bridge (toll eastbound), or continue north on I-287 to the New York Thruway and take the Tappan Zee Bridge (toll eastbound) across the Hudson River. Other drivers like to head west before heading northeast. They take I-270 westbound, then pick up Route 15 in Frederick and drive north to the Harrisburg area, where they can link to I-81 and I-78.
  • Like many other states, Maryland suspends highway work around the holidays. Maryland’s work-zone speed cameras don’t take a holiday.
  • Some Northeast highway and bridge tolls have risen since the last holiday season.
  • With the Maryland House rest area on I-95 temporarily closed for reconstruction, I-95 North drivers will need to go 14 more miles to reach the Chesapeake House in North East, Md.
  • The highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the Newark, Del., toll plaza vastly improved I-95 travel. Reach them from the two lanes on the left side of the highway. All lanes should be open for the holiday period.
  • E-ZPass is like gold if you’re traveling during the holidays, but only if you look for the “E-ZPass only” lanes. Getting stuck in long lines for “E-ZPass or cash” practically negates the value of the pass.
  • Drivers who continue on to the New Jersey Turnpike may find themselves amid a slowdown between exits 6 and 9, where the turnpike is being widened to 12 lanes.
  • Some drivers cringe at mention of the George Washington Bridge among the Northeast routes, because it leads to the Cross Bronx Expressway, a nightmare at peak periods. But if you monitor traffic conditions, and you’re driving off-peak, this may be the quickest way to New England.
  • In Maryland and most other East Coast states, use call 511 to get traffic information on the go. Delaware isn’t part of the 511 system but does provide traffic updates to travelers who tune their radios to WTMC (1380 AM). Delaware also has a Twitter feed with traffic updates: @DelawareDOT.
  • In range of New York, check all-news WCBS (880 AM) or WINS (1010 AM) for traffic reports every 10 minutes. For WCBS, it’s on the eights. For WINS, it’s on the ones. And from commenter vtavgjoe: Don’t forget KYW (1060 AM) for traffic reports (on the 3′s) around Philly, and New Jersey 101.5 to cover the Garden State and NJ Turnpike traffic. And from commenter informedtraveller: Delaware interactive traffic map here: http://deldot.gov/traffic/map.ejs

Advice for southbound travelers

  • Like Maryland, Virginia suspends road work right around the holidays.
  • Christmas HOV rules. Tuesday: Normal HOV restrictions are in effect. Interstate 95/395 reversible lanes will remain southbound Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day. Wednesday: HOV restrictions are lifted. I-95/395 reversible lanes will remain southbound until midnight Christmas Day and switch to northbound by 2 a.m. Thursday. Thursday: Normal HOV restrictions are in effect.
  • New Year’s HOV rules. Tuesday, Dec. 31: Normal HOV restrictions are in effect. I-95/395 reversible lanes will remain southbound New Year’s Eve night and New Year’s Day. Wednesday, Jan. 1: HOV restrictions are lifted. I-95/395 reversible lanes will remain southbound until midnight New Year’s Day and switch to northbound by 2 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 2. Thursday, Jan. 2: Normal HOV restrictions are in effect.
  • 95 Express Lanes construction. Lane closings on I-95 in the 29-mile work zone for the express lanes are restricted from 5 a.m. Tuesday until 8 p.m. Thursday, and again from 5 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31, until 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 2. There will be no daytime lane closings in the work zone this coming weekend and Jan. 4-5. All overnight lane closings in the regular lanes on I-95 must end by 7 a.m. on these weekends.
  • 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.
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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