In previous holiday travel discussions, the most frequently asked question was, “How do I dodge the Delaware toll plaza on Interstate 95?” This fall, things may be different. During the summer, the Delaware Department of Transportation completed the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the toll plaza.
The new lanes are among the biggest congestion busters on the East Coast. But how will they fare in their first Thanksgiving test? And what new bottlenecks could arise? Here’s the 2011 getaway guide to traditional routes and alternatives suggested by frequent travelers.
Traditional route: Interstate 95 to Interstate 295, across the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike to northern New Jersey and the approaches to New York (about 227 miles) and perhaps on to New England.
Alternative 1: Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, follow Route 301 to State Road 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner Road) to Route 1 and 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 City area.
Alternative 2: Baltimore-Washington Parkway or I-95 to I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) around the west side of Baltimore to Interstate 83 north to Interstate 81 north, just east of Harrisburg, Pa. Follow I-81 north, then take Interstate 78 east into New Jersey. There, drivers can take Interstate 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. Other drivers like to head west before heading northeast. They take Interstate 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.
There’s no doubt that the new E-ZPass lanes have a significant impact on the Delaware crossing. But even as it celebrated the opening of the lanes, built with federal stimulus money, the Delaware transportation department did not declare total victory over congestion. The new lanes — two in each direction — start on the left side of I-95 about a quarter-mile before the toll plaza.
With the extraordinary traffic volume around Thanksgiving — particularly the Wednesday before — E-ZPass drivers still could find themselves stuck with everyone else before they reach the breakaway point where the new lanes start. Still, the trip shouldn’t be as bad as last Thanksgiving, when construction disrupted the entire toll plaza operation.
Drivers who continue on to the New Jersey Turnpike may find themselves in the midst of a new slowdown between exits 6 and 9, where the turnpike is being widened to 12 lanes.
Driving through this zone last week, I was reminded of the Capital Beltway high-occupancy-toll lanes project in Virginia. The new lanes are being built on the outer edges of the existing lanes. But in many stretches, there are no shoulders, lanes shift and narrow, pavement markings are altered and the roadway is rough. The construction zone speed limit is 55 mph. In peak periods, traffic moves slowly.
Alternative 1 avoids the Delaware toll plaza. Alternative 2 avoids Delaware and southern New Jersey.
Timing: The eve of Thanksgiving remains the great getaway day, though drivers are spreading out their trips more and more. Thanksgiving morning is generally a great time to travel. Traffic picks up a bit in the early afternoon as drivers make relatively short trips on highways to reach holiday celebrations. Friday is good for highway travel, except for the congestion around interchanges where malls are. Sunday afternoon and evening are the big periods for returning traffic, but the return stretches into Monday morning.
Maryland’s Intercounty Connector will be open between I-270/370 and I-95, providing a shortcut for some drivers heading to and from Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Traditional routes: Interstate 66 to Interstates 81 and 64 heading west, or Interstate 95 to points south.
Alternative 3:Avoid much of I-81 and part of I-66 by taking 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. 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.
Gainesville can be a bottleneck on Route 29, and there is a big construction project around the railroad tracks. Other towns along the way also can be congested. The Cavaliers are scheduled to play the Virginia Tech Hokies on Thanksgiving Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
Alternative 4: Avoid I-66 by taking 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.
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.
It doesn’t get drivers around that bad stretch of I-95 south of Washington. To avoid that area, 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.
Northern Virginia is the home of roadwork megaprojects, but highway departments along the East Coast, including Virginia’s, suspend regular road work between midday Wednesday and Monday for Thanksgiving traffic. (That doesn’t mean they remove the concrete barriers that mark long-term work zones, and in Maryland, the highway work-zone speed cameras will be operating.)
While I-95 south of the District remains problematic at peak periods, a fourth lane has been added in each direction between Route 1 and the Fairfax County Parkway. I-95 is the East Coast’s Main Street, and drivers are likely to encounter holiday traffic from Tuesday morning of Thanksgiving week through the following Monday.
The Virginia Department of Transportation says Thanksgiving getaway travelers should expect to encounter holiday congestion in these areas: I-95 between Richmond and the Capital Beltway’s Springfield interchange, I-66 in both directions, the I-81/77 interchange near Wytheville, I-81 near Lexington to south of Roanoke, and I-64 near Richmond.
The high-occupancy-vehicle restrictions on I-66, I-95 and I-395 are lifted on Thanksgiving Day, but remain in effect on the Wednesday before and the Friday after the holiday.
Whatever direction you are traveling, be sure to check on the weather forecast as well as the traffic conditions. All the routes described in this guide are subject to fog, and many take drivers through mountain ranges, where precipitation can change quickly to sleet and snow.
Virginia and many other East Coast states including Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are part of the 511 information system. Motorists can dial 511 from within the state and get up-to-date information on travel conditions. (Delaware isn’t part of that system but does provide traffic updates to travelers who tune their radios to WTMC-AM 1380. Delaware also has a Twitter feed with traffic updates: @DelawareDOT.)