Refining the road trip up north

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Interstate 95 is the primary artery of East Coast transportation. At times of heavy use, such as the Thanksgiving holiday that looms, arteriosclerosis sets in.

Nevertheless, many thousands of motorists are magnetically drawn to the clot-ridden and toll-plagued highway at times of peak travel - unaware of the existence of alternate routes that could spare them time, money, aggravation, ugliness and Delaware.This year, the Superfluous State has given Maryland motorists added incentive to find a better way to the Northeast by raising the cost of sitting in interminable traffic jams at the Delaware Toll Plaza to $4. No matter; for every person who avoids the extortion, many more will pay the tribute. What a waste.

Last year, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, this column took up the challenge of finding the proverbial Northeast Passage - a route to northern New Jersey, New York and New England that would avoid the congestion and heavy tolls of the I-95 corridor.

With the help of a young Johns Hopkins University employee who drove to her home in East Brunswick, N.J., starting from the same place at the same time as I, we were able to show conclusively that there is a better way home for the holidays - if you're heading for northern New Jersey, Westchester County, N.Y., the New York-Albany corridor or New England.

Alas, the route couldn't be certified as quicker to East Brunswick. Local traffic congestion in the final stretch between Rutgers University and there let Shannon Miller arrive home nine minutes ahead of me, adjusted for breaks. But I'm confident I could have beaten her home, if she had been heading for New Brunswick or any points to the north. And where she paid $10.55 in tolls and endured multiple backups, I paid none and had clear sailing most of the way.

The time savings of the Northeast Passage, described below, may be minimal, if your destination is Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Island or close-in New Jersey suburbs such as Perth Amboy. The toll savings still apply.

For such New Jersey towns as Paterson, Livingston and Montclair - places it seems a lot of people come from - the trip could be cut by an hour or more by avoiding I-95.

Here's how you can do it:

From Baltimore, head north on Interstate 83 toward Harrisburg, Pa.; get off at Exit 19, Route 462 (Market Street), heading east. Take a left on either Haines Road or Mount Zion Road to U.S. 30 and head east toward Lancaster on an interstate-quality closed-access highway. (This way through York is a slight improvement on my route last year.)

At Lancaster, you pick up U.S. 283 east and, after a few miles, split off onto U.S. 222 toward Reading. If you leave by midafternoon Wednesday, you are likely to miss congestion until the closed-access highway ends north of Reading.

You may encounter a brief delay where the closed-access highway ends. But there's an advantage here in that it makes a pit stop at a shop in Moselem Springs a matter of pulling off the road.

Continue north on U.S. 222 but don't make the mistake I made last year of trying to link up with Interstate 78 at Allentown. You can save about 15 minutes and a lot of stop-and-go by cutting up to the interstate on northbound Route 863 or 100.

Last year on Turkey Wednesday, I-78 was bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles - if you were heading west. But, eastbound, it was congestion-free all the way to the critical junction of I-78 and Interstate 287 in New Jersey.

That junction is critical because I-287 is the backdoor route into most of northern New Jersey (free) and the New York State Thruway (toll). I-287 can be reached via the Northeast Passage (also known as Delaware Avoidance Route) in roughly 3 3/4 hours even on the heaviest travel day of the year. To get there via I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike on that day would take, by my estimate, a minimum of five hours.

The Pennsylvania route holds equal promise as a return path on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But check the weather forecast for the Allentown area before taking this route. If an early-season snow is at all likely, this route might not be a great idea.

The Allentown route might not be the best for all Northeastern destinations. If I were headed to Connecticut and points east, I would likely set a course for Scranton, Pa., via Harrisburg to pick up Interstate 84, an interstate that bypasses heavily populated areas on its route through Pennsylvania and New York.

(Toll: $1 at Hudson River bridge, eastbound only. Tolls on routes that use I-95 and the New York bridges can add up to $20 or more.)

Caveat: This plan hasn't been put to the test of last year's route around Allentown. Check forecast for Scranton.

My consultations with colleagues have yielded conflicting reactions to this proposed route. Some say it would be a viable alternative. Others would cross the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge ($4 eastbound).

There's still one column to go before the holiday. Readers are invited to weigh in with their strategies to avoid mega-congestion for traveling to the Northeast at peak times. Please assume we're talking about folks who must travel at those hours. At 3 a.m., even I would go through Delaware - but not through the toll plaza. Those parasites aren't getting any more of my money.

BONUS: To avoid Delaware tolls, get off I-95 at Route 272 heading south toward North East. Take U.S. 40 east into Delaware. At Route 896, take a left and rejoin the Delaware Turnpike heading east. From there it's toll-free all the way to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
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