Testing the road less traveled for a trip northeast

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Forget what Dad and the AAA told you. There is no reason to be on Interstate 95 if you're heading to the Northeast on a holiday weekend. The tolls are a rip-off.

That's the conclusion of an experiment I conducted Wednesday with the assistance of the wonderful Shannon Miller, who works in the undergraduate admissions office of the Johns Hopkins University.With the assistance of JHU's public affairs chief, Dennis O'Shea, I learned that Miller, 23, would be departing the Homewood campus about 12:30 p.m. on the dreaded day before Thanksgiving with plans to drive up Interstate 95 to her family home in East Brunswick, N.J.

Miller cheerfully agreed to meet up at her workplace and coordinate our departures. My hope was to be waiting for her as she pulled in the driveway of her parents' home. The purpose was to test a theory that there exists a Northeast Passage - a relatively congestion-free, stress-free, time-saving route for holiday travel to northern New Jersey and points beyond by means of a Delaware Avoidance Strategy.

By "Delaware," I do not mean just the Bottleneck State but the whole congested I-95 corridor, including Maryland's John F. Kennedy Highway, the Delaware Turnpike, Delaware Memorial Bridge and the New Jersey Turnpike. Miller was planning to use that route for the same reasons so many people do: "It's the way I know, so it's the way I go" and "Dad said it's the best way."

(A AAA spokesman had told me the week before that I-95 was the only practical alternative.)

It was 12:56 p.m. when Miller in her Toyota Celica and I in my Hyundai Elantra pulled out of the Hopkins parking lot in vile, rainy weather to chart our respective courses to her home. We called it a "race" but agreed to go at normal speeds along our different routes and to track traffic conditions.

At the exit for Interstate 83 north, our routes diverged. The race was on.

My carefully researched route took me north on I-83 to York, Pa., where I exited onto U.S. 30 heading east toward Lancaster. There I picked up U.S. 222 north toward Reading and Allentown. Interstate 78 took me east into New Jersey - and Interstate 287 brought me into the maze of Brunswicks around Rutgers University.

According to MapQuest, Miller's 154-mile route would take her 2 hours and 53 minutes under normal traffic conditions. My route of 216 miles was estimated at 3 hours 57 minutes.

MapQuest's time estimates are remarkably accurate, but they don't adjust for congestion. My theory was that Miller would run into more than an hour and four minutes' worth of delays while mine would be far less. It seemed a good bet. She told me that the previous year, when she made the same journey on the same day starting about 3 p.m., her trip home took seven hours.

Meanwhile, I was gambling that I could make up that extra 62 miles by cruising along on congestion-free roads though scenic rural Pennsylvania.

It worked like a charm, with only trifling delays and mostly interstate-equivalent speeds until the outskirts of Allentown.

That's where I made my first mistake. Instead of cutting north to I-78 on Route 100, I let Mapquest lead me into an avoidable 15-minute backup on 222.

Still, I counted that a minor aggravation once I got onto I-78. While the poor suckers traveling away from New York were bumper to bumper, the eastbound lanes were moving freely. I crossed the Delaware River into a scenic part of New Jersey at 4:18 p.m. - 3 hours and 22 minutes from Hopkins. There was minor rush-hour congestion on I-287, but I reached Rutgers in New Brunswick in about four hours flat.

It was the local congestion I hit - a 20-minute backup in East Brunswick alone - that let Miller beat me to her folks' home by nine minutes. When we compared breaks (mine was five minutes longer) and wrong turns (her, none; me, one), it was a virtual tie at 4 1/2 hours.

Miller said traffic was heavy on I-95 in Maryland and that it took her an hour and 24 minutes to reach Delaware. The Newark toll plaza was no problem, but she ran into her first big backup at Exit 1, taking 38 minutes to get through that state.

The New Jersey Turnpike brought her more headaches - with one stretch between Exit 5 and Exit 7 taking 47 minutes to go 11 miles. "It was aggravating," she said. "People would be going 45 mph and all of a sudden they would slam on their brakes."

Miller counted 13 traffic officers either stopping cars or lying in wait. She paid $10.55 in tolls. I counted three police along my route and paid no tolls at all. (The I-78 bridge over the Delaware is tolled westbound only.)

Though it would have been fun to have actually beaten Miller home, the experiment was a success. If she had lived in any of the Brunswicks except East, I would have won. For much of northern New Jersey, southern New York, the Tappan Zee Bridge and New England, the Northeast Passage could shave more than an hour off travel versus I-95 under similar conditions.

The next big holiday travel day is Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas. By all means, give Delaware Avoidance a try. But before you do, check the weather report for Reading and Allentown. If it says snow, it's time to go back to the road atlas.

POSTSCRIPT: Miller, mindful that some of the worst I-95 delays occur on the southbound trip on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, tried my route (with a slight improvement around Allentown) when she returned yesterday. She called to say "I absolutely love" that way home. She said it took her 3 1/2 hours from New Brunswick to Hopkins and "the roads were completely clear."
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