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Dr. Gridlock's holiday getaway guide

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:34 PM

Our annual holiday traffic guide may make your getaway a little less hectic, but don't count on completely avoiding crowded roads as you plot your exit and return. Many of the drivers who contributed ideas about the routes will be out there with you. The key to success on the holiday roads is to stay alert and be patient. You'll get there.

Northeast Corridor

Traditional route: Interstate 95 to the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike to northern New Jersey, New York and New England.

l Alternative 1: Avoiding I-95

Route: Baltimore-Washington Parkway to I-695 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 and cross the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee Bridge. Or they can take the New Jersey Turnpike north to the George Washington Bridge, or stay on I-78 east to reach the Holland Tunnel.

Advantages: It's not I-95, and that's enough for many. But at peak travel periods, such as Thanksgiving, it's also likely to be less congested, and it's definitely cheaper. The scenery is better, too.

Advisories: It's about 65 more miles than the standard I-95 route. You won't necessarily get there faster. The terrain is more mountainous in sections, so watch the weather.

l Alternative 2: Avoiding the Delaware toll plaza

Route: From I-95 north, take Route 279 toward Newark, Del. Turn right onto Iron Hill Road. At the end, turn left onto Chestnut Hill Road. Then turn right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue). I-95 will be a quarter-mile down the road.

Advantages: It saves car drivers $4 at the Newark toll plaza, and for some, that's enough reason to stray from heavily tolled I-95.

Advisories: We're sending you onto local streets in holiday season. Slow down and watch for pedestrians.

Issues and options

There's nothing like a crawl up I-95 to give drivers the holiday blues, so in each fall guide, we concentrate on the Northeast getaway. Travelers have a particular loathing for that Newark Toll Plaza.

It's one of the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast and a chronic problem when traffic volume surges around the holidays. This fall, the congestion has been quite severe, because the Delaware Department of Transportation is using federal stimulus money to build highway speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the toll plaza.

The project should provide welcome relief, but it won't be done till next summer. Meanwhile, lane closings related to the construction have made traffic extra difficult since September. However, they are scheduled to end temporarily on Wednesday. So all the travel lanes should be open for Thanksgiving, and will stay open through New Year's. Still, there will be those holiday traffic volumes to deal with.

Rest stop: The service area in the median of I-95 in Delaware that was closed during the holidays last year has reopened.

Other routes: Some northbound travelers vary the toll plaza bypass by taking I-95 to Route 279 to Elkton Road, which becomes Route 2. Then go north about two miles, right on Route 4 (Christiana Parkway) for about a mile, then right again on College Avenue, with I-95 ahead.

For a much wider sweep around I-95, some drivers head east on Route 50 across the Bay Bridge, to Route 301 to state road 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner Road) to Route 1 and Route 13. From there, they can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Others will head west before heading northeast. They pick up Route 15 in Frederick and drive north to the Harrisburg area, where they can link to Interstates 76, 81 and 78.

E-ZPass: Most toll lanes accept E-ZPass, but it's pointless to get in them if they also cater to cash customers. The higher speed E-ZPass-only lanes tend to be on the left side of toll plazas.

Timing: Drivers are spreading out their getaway times during the holidays. Even if you take one of our alternative routes, don't count on having the highway to yourself.

South and West

Traditional routes: Interstate 66 to Interstates 81 and 64 heading west, or Interstate 95 south.

l Alternative 1: Avoiding much of I-81

Route: Take Route 29 south from Gainesville, through Culpeper, Charlottesville and on to Lynchburg, where you can take Route 460 west to join I-81 at Roanoke.

Advantages: Picking up I-81 at this point avoids some of the worst pockets of congestion farther north and avoids a lot of the truck traffic that makes the interstate so frightening. Routes 29 and 460 are good four-lane highways, and they roll through some pretty country south of Warrenton.

Advisories: Gainesville can be a bottleneck on Route 29, and other towns along the way also can be congested. The Cavaliers do not have a home game in Charlottesville this Thanksgiving weekend, but they will be playing the Hokies at Blacksburg on Nov. 27.

l Alternative 2: Avoiding I-66

Route: Take I-95 south to Route 3 west in Fredericksburg. Take a left onto Route 20 toward Orange. In Orange, turn left onto Route 15 to Gordonsville. At the traffic circle in Gordonsville, go 180 degrees to Route 231. Turn right at the end of the road, and that will take you right to I-64. Hop on it going west, and you will hit I-81.

Advantages: This route is an option for drivers who have just had it with I-66. It takes them through some of the prettiest parts of Virginia, particularly on Route 231.

Advisories: It doesn't get drivers around that bad stretch of I-95 south of Washington. Drivers to the east may prefer Route 301. Drivers to the west may want to use Route 28 to Routes 15 or 17. Route 17 is an option for reaching the Tidewater area.

Issues and options

Roadways: I-66 has been widened out to Gainesville, but there it becomes two lanes in each direction. On I-95, a fourth lane has been added in each direction between Route 1 and the Fairfax County Parkway.

511: By calling 511 in Virginia or visiting 511virginia.org, people can get directions and information about traffic incidents, bridges and tunnels and road construction. (Maryland's 511 system is not yet active.)

Road work: The Virginia Department of Transportation, like most other highway departments, will pull up the orange cones and barrels near the major holidays, but concrete barriers and lane shifts, including those along the Capital Beltway, will remain in place.

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