By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
12:01 AM EDT, May 21, 2013
On Memorial Day weekends, Kim Yates and Albert Kullman measure success by speed.
Yates steers her bright yellow tow truck toward trouble, with the goal of getting disabled vehicles out of the roadway or back in business before traffic has time to clog. From his toll booth at the Bay Bridge, Kullman can make change for a $10 or $20 in under 12 seconds.
"We want you on your way," Yates said. "Safely."
The summer season kicks off this weekend when 718,200 Marylanders are expected to leave town for the beach or mountains, 1.2 percent fewer than a year ago, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. Ninety-one percent of those surveyed planned to drive, while 48,100 were flying, a drop of 9.5 percent.
Worries about federal sequestration causing furloughs for thousands of breadwinners and lingering concerns about the economy have some families playing it safe, said Ragina Averella, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
"However, despite the slight drop, this year's travel volume still remains robust and ranks at the fourth highest level over a 12-year period," she said.
Marylanders also are expected to spend less on their holiday weekend trip, about $867 compared to last year's $972, AAA projected.
"Spending is lower this year as travelers indicated they are scaling back on shopping, entertainment and recreation, and food and beverages," Averella said. She added that gas prices are roughly 4 percent lower this year.
The Maryland Transportation Authority anticipates 1.8 million motorists will use the state's toll roads, bridges and tunnels between Friday and Monday. The Fort McHenry Tunnel, Interstate 95 north of Baltimore and the twin spans of the Bay Bridge will bear the brunt of the traffic.
Waiting for the Ocean City-bound crowd at one of the 11 toll lanes will be Kullman, a wiry former furniture mover who in less than three years has built a reputation as one of the agency's fastest money changers. During a peak period last summer, Kullman handled 393 transactions in a single hour, a Bay Bridge record he vows to break this year.
Last year on the Friday kick-off of the Memorial Day weekend, the state collected nearly $267,000 in tolls on the bridge, and slightly less than half of it was processed by collectors.
Kullman works the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift — crunch time.
"It seems like a never-ending parking lot, like Arundel Mills mall on a Friday night," he said of the start of the holiday rush. "It's a sea of vehicles. You know what you're up against."
So does Yates. In 25 years driving a tow truck at the State Highway Administration, Yates has handled it all. A broken-down truck full of elephants. A woman in the final moments of childbirth. Fatal crashes. Near misses. A luxury car owner irate that when help arrived, it didn't come with premium gas.
"They're a happy bunch," she said of the Memorial Day vacationers. "But when they get delayed, they get pretty nutty."
Yates, a Rosedale resident, is a member of the Coordinated Highways Action Response Team (CHART), which combines the efforts of state and local transportation and law enforcement agencies to monitor traffic and untangle accidents and other emergencies.
In her emergency patrol truck, Yates prowls the highways, pouncing on flat tires, steaming radiators and busted belts. She responds to the information pouring from the scanners, two-way radios and a laptop showing traffic cameras that share the front seat with her.
At the first report of distress, she plots a course and radios her position. With her right hand, she plays with the toggle switches that activate a large flashing arrow that rises from the back of her truck to direct traffic away from trouble. Then she does traffic triage, whether it's changing a flat, dragging a deer carcass from the road or sweeping up broken glass and mangled car parts.
"It's never a dull moment," Yates said. "Clearing the road is exciting. You're pushing, pulling, patching, doing whatever you have to do to get the roadway cleared."
Clearing the scene is Kullman's mission, too.
He has choreographed the steps — now mimicked by some of the other 32 collectors — for making change quickly, prearranging small stacks of bills in the nanoseconds between customers.
"It doesn't take that long to develop a system. It's mostly common sense," he said. "Then you get into a rhythm."
Only a few things can make him miss a beat: a motorist who forgets to turn off the wipers before pulling alongside his open window, a smart-aleck kid who pays the $4 toll in dimes.
"You have to count it all," he said. "Meanwhile, everyone is waiting."
If one thing gives him nightmares, it's the white-knuckled walk every day from the administration building to his tiny rectangular booth with panoramic views of oncoming traffic.
His money drawer has a shield, but: "If I drop it, there's going to be money everywhere — and how am I going to get that back?"
Kullman shouldn't sweat it. In a recent monthly audit of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he handled, the Anne Arundel County resident was short 14 cents.
"I can live with that," he said.
State officials continue to urge vacationers to travel in off-peak hours: on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday, before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.; on Saturday, before 7 a.m. and after 10 p.m.
For returning traffic, the MdTA cautioned that new lane markings and rumble strips have been installed on the westbound span. Drivers in those left and center lanes are prohibited from making lane changes.
Memorial Day weekend will signal the last holiday before tolls on bridges and tunnels go up on July 1. The Fort McHenry, Harbor Tunnel and Key Bridge tolls will increase $1 to $4 for two-axle vehicles; I-95 and U.S. 40's Thomas Hatem Bridge will rise $2 to $8; and the Nice Memorial Bridge and the Bay Bridge will jump $2 to $6.
"I've thought about that," said Kullman with a grin. "It's no big deal. I already have a new system."
The state has several platforms to dispense traffic information:
•For Bay Bridge conditions, 877-229-7726, or baybridge.com for cameras
•For statewide conditions: call 511 or go to MD511.org
•To see traffic cameras statewide: chart.state.md.us
•On Twitter: @TheMDTA and @MDSHA.
•On Facebook: TheMDTA and MarylandStateHighwayAdministration
•For toll rates: mdta.maryland.gov
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun