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.
Department spokesman Michael Williams said the opening of two new high-speed E-ZPass lanes in each direction "will result in dramatic changes in what motorists face when they transit the Newark toll plaza in Delaware."
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.
But state officials insist the tolls on the Delaware Turnpike aren't that unreasonable. In fact, they say, there really is no such thing as the Delaware Turnpike — no matter what Wikipedia, major media outlets and some of the state's own websites might say.
Williams said the toll portion of I-95 in Delaware in properly known as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, just as it is in Maryland. And he insisted that contrary to the indications on many roadmaps, including those published by the Maryland State Highway Administration and Rand-McNally, the toll road is actually 26 miles long — counting the entire stretch between Maryland and Pennsylvania borders — rather than the 11 miles between the toll plaza and the Interstate 95-295 split.
The distinction might seem technical, but it makes a big difference when Delaware's toll costs are compared to those in other states on a per-mile basis. At 11 miles, it comes to a hefty 36 cents a mile; at 26 miles the cost is a much more reasonable 15 cents.
However they're calculated, the Delaware tolls aren't going away. They are popular in that state because tolls are collected only at the Maryland state line, and most Delaware residents use the highway without charge.
"You can use probably 24 miles of it without paying any toll at all," Williams said. "A lot of the people who live in Delaware don't need to use the toll plaza because they're not going to Maryland."
Even when traveling south, the toll burden doesn't fall too heavily because, as Williams acknowledged, you're hardly a Delawarean at all if you don't know all the local routes to avoid the plaza.
Unlike Maryland, where tolls are retained by the Maryland Transportation Authority for use at its roads, bridges and tunnels, money raised by tolls in Delaware go into that state's Transportation Trust Fund to pay for projects all over the state, Williams said.
And unlike Maryland, where a menu of proposed toll increases is pending, Delaware's $4 one-way charge appears safe for now. Williams said there are no moves afoot to raise that toll.
Neither, he said, is any consideration being given to switching to one-way toll collections, as Maryland did on its part of the Kennedy Highway in 1991. In Delaware, where there are no big rivers such as the Susquehanna to cross, it would be much easier to use the highway in the free direction and take back roads to avoid an $8 toll the other way.
The spokesman said the expansion will add the four E-ZPass lanes to a plaza that now consists of 15 lanes in the main section and five others off to the side in the northbound lanes. The highway-speed lanes — similar to those on Delaware Route 1 or Maryland's new Intercounty Connector — will be Delaware's first full-time dedicated pass lanes on I-95.
There was no room for more lanes because residential development restricts the right-of-way on one side while the highway's administration building limits it on the other, Williams said.
Teri Moss, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said Marylanders could be among the beneficiaries of its neighboring state's work.
"This is good news for motorists heading out of Maryland on I-95 this weekend — and I-95 to Route 1 in Delaware should again be a viable route for residents north of Baltimore heading to Maryland and Delaware beach resorts," Moss said.
But some drivers remain skeptical.
"I'm just not going to hold my breath that it's going to be as good as they're making it out to be," said Tewes.
The Severn resident is still fuming over her trip through the nearly-completed plaza last weekend. She said that last Saturday night, even after the new signage for the plaza was in place, southbound I-95 was down to one toll lane.
"We could have almost made it home in the time we sat in this tiny little state," she said. "It's like, 'We got you one more time.'"