Another ‘I-495′ has a traffic problem

Drivers who travel between the D.C. area and Philadelphia, New York or New England are looking for alternatives to Interstate 95 through Delaware, because that state has been forced to shut a bridge on an interstate bypass in Wilmington.

The Wilmington bypass, shown on the map above, is designated as Interstate 495, the same as the Capital Beltway, but the impact on the D.C. region’s drivers will occur only when they travel long distance.

The Delaware Department of Transportation closed I-495 in both directions over the Christina River on Monday evening after a bridge inspection showed four of the 37 pairs of vertical support columns had tilted, creating a safety hazard. The bridge was built in 1974.

The department said its consultants are still trying to figure out what caused the problem. A preliminary analysis determined that the structure can bear its own weight, but could exceed its weight-bearing capacity under a full load of traffic. There’s no timetable for reopening the bridge, which crosses the Christina River, a tributary of the Delaware.

A driver between the D.C. area and points north might choose I-495 as a 12-mile-long alternative to I-95 through downtown Wilmington. In fact, the Delaware Department of Transportation normally would encourage that. Instead, the department is putting out warnings to avoid I-495 and to watch out for extra traffic diverting to I-95, particularly at rush hours.

Other routes
It’s difficult to assess the long-term impact on traffic. Since the bridge closed, rush-hour traffic has been extra heavy in the Wilmington area, but part of that stems from surprise about the closing and the time it takes drivers to form alternative plans.

At midday Wednesday, I-95 traffic in Delaware was moving very well, with just a few slow spots up to the Philadelphia area, but worsened quickly as rush hour approached. This weekend could present the first test of the new traffic situation for people on weekend getaways or vacations. Crossing Delaware can be an unpleasant experience during the vacation season and around the November-December holidays.

I-295. The least disruptive alternative for drivers from the D.C. area is to follow I-295 as it splits to the right from I-95 south of Wilmington. Take I-295 to the Delaware Memorial Bridge (toll). From there, either continue on I-295, which exits to the right, or take the New Jersey Turnpike (toll). The turnpike is undergoing a widening project in the central part of the state, which can slow drivers when the volume is heavy.

Through Pennsylvania. Many drivers need very little encouragement to dump I-95 altogether. I hear from them each spring and fall, and they’ve provided tips on routes between D.C. and the Northeast via Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania route
Map shows a Pennsylvania alternative recommended by many travelers.

They say: From the D.C. area, take I-95 north to I-695, just before Baltimore, to I-83 to York, Pa., and Harrisburg, Pa., then I-81 to I-78. Options include staying on I-78 across New Jersey toward New York or taking a more northerly course: following Route 22 just before Allentown, Pa., to Route 33 to I-80 across the top of New Jersey.

Traffic reports. Before leaving home, check the Delaware Department of Transportation Web site at www.deldot.gov for traffic conditions. In Delaware, tune your radio to WTMC (1380 AM) for traffic reports. In New Jersey, listen to WKXW (101.5 FM) for traffic.

Southern dodge. Drivers offer a separate set of suggestions for approaching I-95 in Delaware via Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These are directions I normally include in my winter getaway recommendations. The traffic volumes are likely to be higher in the warmer weather, especially on weekends. But you can at least reach I-295 in Delaware, east of the point where I-95 splits off for Wilmington.


Map shows I-95 alternative via Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

For this trip, take Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, follow Route 301 to Route 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner roads) to Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

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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