Dr. Gridlock: Thansksgiving travel, metro problems and holiday escape routes

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 23, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Nov. 23 to discuss your travel plans for the holiday weekend, Metro's ongoing problems and diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Local Living section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Dr. Gridlock also hosts his own discussion group, Taken for a Ride, where he tries to help ease your travel pains.


Robert Thomson: Welcome, travelers. I have plenty of questions from you about this week's Thanksgiving getaway, with some other more local issues to blend in.


Chapel Hill, NC: How bad do you think traffic will be coming North on I-95 this Wednesday? I'm hoping this will be against the flow

Robert Thomson: Bad. Very, very bad. I remember that last year, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I was at the Wilson Bridge project headquarters in Alexandria in the early afternoon. (I think we were talking about the Variable Speed Limit system, which was about to launch. We got onto the Beltway's inner loop, and that wasn't so bad. But traffic was just parked on the outer loop, I-95/495 North.

Many travelers complain about the holiday getaway congestion between Fredericksburg and Washington, to the point where they recommend Route 301 as an eastern bypass and Routes 17 and 28 to I-66 as a western bypass. (Traffic conditions would have to be quite dire for me to use I-66 to bypass anything.)

But this is one of many getaway topics I'd like travelers to comment on.


Washington, D.C.: Over Thanksgiving and again at Christmas, we will be traveling from Richmond, Va. to Breezewood, Penn. (at least this is where we get on the Pa Turnpike ) ... what is our best route? - I-95 south of the Beltway always seems to be a parking lot.

Robert Thomson: A couple of weeks ago, I did a posting on the Get There blog asking for advice on how to either get to Breezewood from the Washington area, or how to avoid Breezewood, since it's such a big bottleneck for travelers heading to the Pa Turnpike. I got some good answers on both, but didn't ask about how to approach it from farther south.

My first thought is that a driver from Richmond might get onto Route 17 at Fredericksburg and then do one of a couple of things: Take 17 to I-66 to I-81 to I-70 to Breezewood and the Pa Pike junction, or take 17 to Route 15 to I-70 to Breezewood (and avoid I-81).


Alexandria, Va.: Great article in Sunday's paper on alternative holiday traffic routes, but what about those of us headed directly south? We're going to Aiken, S.C. What alternatives do we have to 95, especially coming home on Sunday?

Robert Thomson: I don't do that one, because I haven't developed anything good to suggest on a route straight south from the Alexandria area. Seems to me the worst part of your trip is Alexandria to Fredericksburg, and I can't see sending you out to the east or west from there (to pick up something like Route 17 to the west or Route 301 to the east), because that seems like it will cost you more time than it will save on the I-95 South route.

If travelers know of a time-saving option for a southbound trip from Alexandria, let me know, because I'd be glad to spread the word around.


Anonymous: I'm planning to leave Tuesday at 11 a.m. heading for Virginia Beach via I-95 and I-64. Will that be soon enough to beat everyone else headed in that direction?

Robert Thomson: No, but it's still better than leaving on Wednesday when you'll share the road with the immediate world. The reason I say, No, you won't beat everyone on Tuesday, is that plenty of people have given up on Wednesday departures in recent years and make their escape on Tuesday. Also, Virginia doesn't give up on roadwork till noon Wednesday, so you might encounter some highway work zones along your route.


I270 on Wednesday night: On Wednesday night, what will be the best time to head out to West Virginia via 495 (coming from Southern Maryland) to 270 to 70? If I leave around 7 p.m., will I miss the worst of the traffic?

Are there any alternate routes to avoid 270 and/or 495?

Robert Thomson: There are alternatives for parts of that trip -- US 40, for example -- but I don't know of any that's going to provide you with significant relief on Wednesday evening to make it worth your while to ditch the Interstates while coming up from Southern Maryland.

To me, the timing is more the issue on this one. I think you might be better off if you started at 8 or 9 p.m. Our local transportation officials say the worst hours on Wednesday are likely to be noon to 8 p.m.


Falls Church, Va.: We have to get from NoVa to Ohio for Thanksgiving. We can either go north (495 to 270) or south (66). What time do we need to leave by on Wednesday in order to retain some sanity on either route?

Robert Thomson: One of my thoughts about long trips like that is, you're almost always going to run into somebody's rush hour, or peak getaway time. But generally, the earlier you leave, the saner you're going to stay.

I'm thinking really early. I'd leave before the morning rush in Washington. After that, you're almost certain to be sharing the road with people going about their regular weekday business and getaway drivers leaving at all hours.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Driving to Buffalo, N.Y. Usually take 270, 70 to Breezewood and then 70/76 (Penna Turnpike). 270 and 70 are usually crowded and slow. Any way of bypassing them and getting straight on to Penna Turnpike?

Robert Thomson: When I asked on the Get There blog about avoiding Breezewood, I got some guidance from blog commenters who give consistently good advice. Their suggestions involved branching away from I-70 and taking I-68 west. Here's a sample of what they said.

"Avoiding Breezewood:

You could take I-68 west from Hancock and then use either US-220 north (meets the Turnpike at Bedford, one exit west of Breezewood) or US-219 north (takes you to Somerset via a somewhat longer drive than the US-220 route). Or you could stay on I-68 to where it ends at I-79 in West Virginia, then go north on I-79. That's a considerably longer drive distance-wise, though (but it may have less traffic and it's toll-free)." That was from 1995hoo.

This was from thetan:

"I've done I-68 from Hancock to Morgantown, I-79 to Washington PA, and then I-70 west to Columbus on several occasions. Its longer, but not that much longer, and certainly a more pleasant drive than the Turnpike."

An I-68 route west could take you to I-79 and then I-90 to reach Buffalo.


Arlington, Va.: Thank you so much for fielding these questions. Wednesday after work I need to go from Arlington to Centreville and then on to Indiana by way of I-64. What is the best way to proceed from Centreville? Last year I-66 was terrible for about 20 miles.

Robert Thomson: Okay, from Centreville to I-64 on Wednesday after work? You know I don't like the timing, which is almost always the most important factor in how well this goes, but I know most people don't have flexibility about when to leave. (That's why we call them "peak travel periods.")

From Centreville, you might consider taking Route 28 to Route 29 to pick up I-64 in Charlottesville. How does that sound to the rest of you?


McLean, Va.: Greetings Dr. G -

Neither camera, on either side of the Chain Bridge is operational. Can you get this corrected? Those cameras are especially needed with the ongoing construction. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: I see on the traffic maps that both those cameras are knocked out and know how helpful they can be to travelers during the bridge rehab, which has traffic down to one lane in each direction. I think the cameras are under two different jurisdictions, and will check on what's up.


Silver Spring, Md.: Little bit out of the region, but I am hoping you or a reader would know the answer to this question. Headed for Groton, Conn., leaving Wednesday at about 2:30. Would heading through eastern Penn., hitting 287 East make sense to avoid Delaware and the Cross Bronx? Will the Tappan Zee be bad in that direction?

Robert Thomson: I'm sorry you have to leave at that hour, but under the circumstances, I think yes, you'd be better off taking the northerly route, getting away from I-95, the GW Bridge and the Cross Bronx.

As you know, you will encounter some backup at the Tappan Zee Bridge, because you're going in the direction of the toll plaza. Also, you'll find congestion on the Cross Westchester in White Plains and then again when you pick up I-95 across Conn. (I don't believe the Merritt Parkway would offer much relief across Conn. on Wednesday.)


Wednesday or Thursday?: For travel on I-95 N, from Arlington to Monclair, NJ, to you recommend leaving at 6 a.m. Wednesday or 6 a.m. Thursday?

Robert Thomson: Thursday would almost certainly be better. You should be in decent shape on an early Wednesday getaway, but you'll still run into somebody's rush period on a megalopolis excursion like that.


Ledroit Park: Hi!

I was thinking of dropping off my car at the Springfield Metro parking lot so I could take the metro out to on Wednesday mid-day and pick up my car there. If my goal is to head south on I-95 (all the way to Florida!), do you think this would provide me time savings, or is it not worth the hassle?


Robert Thomson: I admire the creativity. You would save the Potomac crossing by car, but I'm not sure the total time invested in the setup would be worth it.

My greater concern for you is the trip all the way to Florida during the holiday period. Are you trying to make this, by yourself, in one straight shot? I did a trip from NYC to Fort Lauderdale with a friend in a straight shot, when we were both very young. Even taking turns, we nearly didn't make it. By the time we reached FLA, we were changing drivers every 20 minutes.


Grid Lo, CK: I have to travel from silver spring to Baltimore for Thanksgiving day meal, would it be better to travel on Wednesday night or Thursday morning?

Robert Thomson: You should be fine on Thursday. Don't do it on Wednesday night if you're only consideration is travel time and travel hassle.


To Buffalo: The person going to Buffalo might consider taking US-15 through central Pennsylvania. You go up through Williamsport and it takes you up to Corning, New York, where you take NY-17 (now dual-numbered as I-86) northwest to I-390. I-390 puts you into the Thruway near Rochester. This route is a lot more direct than any of the ones using the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I used it coming back from Toronto once and it was a good way to go, and it looks like the road has been upgraded to a limited-access highway from Williamsport north to the state line.

Robert Thomson: I'll watch for responses like this to previous exchanges with readers. Thanks to all for your contributions.


Bethesda, Md.: I'll vouch for the I-68 route all the way to I-79. If you're heading towards the Pittsburgh area or beyond (Ohio or Erie) it probably adds about 45 minutes under ideal traffic conditions - but there is nothing ideal about Breezewood or the infernal Penn. Turnpike on a busy weekend like this one. I-68 is a much nice road than the PA Turnpike as well, only thing to consider is weather, sometimes 68 can get very foggy.

Robert Thomson: Among the good points here is the concern about the weather, which looks pretty iffy this week. The routes through PA that we've been talking about can be especially difficult during bad weather in November and December. The roads aren't that terrific, and there are plenty of stretches through the mountains.


Anonymous: We are leaving Washington and going back to Pawleys Island, S.C. on Saturday morning. Will there be delays on 95? How should I go?

Robert Thomson: If I were doing that trip on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I'd just go I-95. You may run into some delays because of circumstances we can't anticipate now, like an accident, or the weather. But my general feeling on all this is that you should stick to the biggest, widest highway you can find while still being aware of options along the way. Get off the Interstate when you have to, but be wary of launching yourself on a side route expedition where you can encounter plenty of traffic lights, left turns and mall traffic.


Arlington, Va.: I am leaving tomorrow sometime between 4:30-6 to head to Cleveland for the weekend.

The drive normally takes around six hours, but expect it will take closer to 6.5-7 because I am leaving so late. Of course the worst part being 270-70. How do you recommend getting from Clarendon to 270 at this time?

On the way back, we are leaving Saturday at 6 p.m. and will get back around midnight. The drive back last year Thanksgiving Sunday was one of the worst days of my life. I will never drive again.

Thank you.

Robert Thomson: There are so few options getting out of the congested core of our region at that time, I think I'd just stick with the basics and not go for anything fancy. You might just try GW Parkway to the Beltway to I-270. Any possibility you could leave Clarendon later in the evening?


Washington, DC: What time would you advise leaving the city on Wed. in order to reach Dulles in time for a 7:30 flight? The drive on 66 has me worried.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I'd be worried about that, too. I'm always very conservative answering airport arrival time issues, because I'd hate to have anyone miss a plane after asking my advice. So for a 7:30 flight from Dulles on Wednesday, I'd be in my car at 3 p.m.


I'm thankful for....: my family lives in the same city as me so no one has to fight traffic to get together for Thanksgiving festivities. Yay!

Robert Thomson: AAA's survey estimates that almost a million people in the Washington area won't be that lucky, but do have some place they want to be.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I must leave now, but not for the holidays. I've made a copy of all the remaining questions and advice coming in for other travelers. Over the next two days, I'll add postings to the Get There blog that address these issues.

Stay safe and have a happy Thanksgiving.


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