Could Delaware's infamous toll plaza bottleneck finally have been uncorked?
Delaware Department of Transportation officials say they've completed a $32.6 million project — just in time for the July 4 holiday weekend — that will greatly reduce the mind-numbing toll collection backups that have made Delaware's border with Maryland the most dreaded stretch of Interstate 95 from Maine to Miami.
Work on the project, which started last spring and temporarily added to the congestion woes at the toll plaza, was completed a month ahead of schedule, Williams said.
The toll plaza has been notorious for its miles-long backups, which could add an hour or more to trips along the Eastern Seaboard on holidays, summer weekends and, sometimes, at times when there seemed to be no earthly explanation.
The kicker would come when the trapped-like-a-rat motorist finally reached the tollbooth and had to cough up $4 — each way — to drive through a state that took less time to cross than to pay for the privilege of doing so. The low return on investment in time and money has driven many drivers to seek bypass routes that have saved them both.
While the expanded toll plaza may not be entirely backup-free, Williams said, the waits should no longer be so severe that a time-pressed driver is better off leaving I-95.
"It'll be a very reduced distance and a very reduced time," he said.
Ragina Averella, Maryland spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said she is well aware of the record of the Delaware toll plaza, both from the complaints of AAA members and personal experience as a resident of Harford County.
"It is one of those things where we certainly do receive comments from members," she said. "I personally, when I do travel northbound, even when it's not a holiday, I do see the congestion at that site."
The change may not eliminate backups, she said, but it will "certainly help."
If Delaware can deliver on its promises, it will be good news for drivers such as Colleen Tewes, who has come to loathe the toll plaza during her frequent trips to visit family in New Jersey.
"We've gotten stuck for up to one and a half to two hours," Tewes said. "That's the part that gets me — you're just going a few miles and then you sit and sit."
Such episodes have given some Maryland drivers a poor impression of the Blue Hen State and those who inhabit it.
"I swear they plain hate us," Tewes said.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell tried to dispel some of that impression last Thanksgiving, when the combination of construction and holiday travel led to such severe congestion that he ordered that tolls be temporarily waived to speed traffic through.
Some state officials are hoping completion of the project will help dispel some of the negative impressions of Delaware that the toll plaza fosters.
"The completion of the Newark toll plaza project is welcome news for the hundreds of thousands of motorists that travel through Delaware on I-95 each day," said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat and a former governor. "I always say, 'If it's not perfect, make it better,' and this project will make thousands of out-of-state motorists' experience driving through Delaware better."
Some motorists, of course, are unlikely to be satisfied as long as they have to pay a toll that has often been described as one of the stiffest on a per-mile basis in the country.