Update on bottlenecks for getaway traffic

As the D.C. region slinks toward its summer traffic patterns, many drivers are plotting their getaway routes. And they’re asking about the status of the highway bottlenecks we’ve warned about over the past two months. Here’s the latest.

Interstate 495 in Delaware. It’s unlikely you will be able to use this I-95 dodge in Delaware before Labor Day. Repair work on the now-closed I-495 bridge over the Christina River is moving rapidly, the Delaware Department of Transportation said Thursday. But it’s a big job, involving installation of 32 steel-reinforced concrete shafts below ground to strengthen support for the bridge.

Orange barrels on I-95
I-95 drivers will encounter road work in Northern Virginia through the summer. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)

The bridge closing has two effects on travelers from the D.C. area: They can’t use I-495 to bypass the I-95 traffic in downtown Wilmington, and the traffic on I-95 to and from Philadelphia is more congested, though the lanes are open.

I’ve been watching the traffic maps and cameras. Recently, the I-95 traffic in the Wilmington has not been so severe that vacationers would want to detour just to avoid the city — unless they plan to pass through at rush hour, or on a Friday evening, when traffic is normally heavy.

If you do feel the need to detour, the shortest version 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). This is the one that makes the most sense to me given recent conditions in Wilmington.

There’s a more significant deviation in which a driver can approach I-95 in Delaware via Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but note that the traffic volumes are likely to be higher during summer travel season, especially on weekends. 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.

A much more radical work-around involves driving north into Pennsylvania before entering New Jersey. Some New York or New England-bound drivers might want to try this, but don’t do it only because of concern about getting through Wilmington. Use this link to see the Pennsylvania route.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The bridge and its approaches on Routes 50/301 are perennials on the list of getaway bottlenecks. But this coming weekend, the Maryland Transportation Authority warns of the potential for extra traffic heading to Ocean City for the skateboard and BMX championships that are part of the Dew Tour.

For all summer weekends, the transportation authority says the best times to cross the bridge are: Thursday and Friday before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m., Saturday before 7 a.m. or after 5 p.m., Sunday before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m.

New Jersey Turnpike. The massive project to widen the turnpike between exits 6 and 9 in the middle of New Jersey has been underway for several years, but it reached a milestone this spring when the new lanes in the sides of the highway opened to traffic. But for the time being, that means traffic that was using the old inner lanes has been pushed onto the new outer lanes so the project can continue. The full project is scheduled to be done by Thanksgiving, which the turnpike authority says would be an on-time finish.

I-95/395 in Northern Virginia. The place where getaway traffic is most likely to be slowed is very close to home, in the 29-mile construction zone for the 95 Express Lanes between the Capital Beltway and Garrisonville. There’s no sense worrying about any of the other bottlenecks I mention and not taking this one very seriously in your travel planning.

This is a rough stretch at any peak travel time, because of the enormous volume of traffic, but on many summer weekends, sections of the HOV lanes on I-95/395 will close for the express lanes project. The effects are two-fold. It means you can’t use the HOV lanes in the middle of the interstate during the hours they normally would be open to all traffic. And it means that all traffic will be squeezed into the regular lanes.

Also underway in the vicinity is a shoulder improvement project in Prince William County, a ramp construction project to link the Fort Belvoir North area and the 95 Express Lanes, and construction of an auxiliary lane on northbound I-395 between Duke Street and Seminary Road.

Drivers can avoid the work zone by swinging out to east or west. To the east, there’s Route 301, which crosses the Potomac River via the Nice Bridge (toll) and links up with I-95 around Fredericksburg. To the west, drivers can take a Routes 28 and 17, which also links up with I-95 around Fredericksburg.

Most highway departments will suspend road work around the summer holiday weekends. That means they will pull up the orange cones and barrels, but the lane shifts, lane narrowings and rough pavement will remain in place. Next week, we’ll have more advice about getting away for the long July 4 weekend, as well as tips for those of you staying in the D.C. area.

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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