Baltimore Sun

This route might save you time if you're heading to Richmond on I-95

Avoiding the purgatory that is Interstate 95 on a holiday weekend is not all that difficult if you're heading from Baltimore to the Northeast. Pennsylvania offers a wide choice of routes to scoot to the west of Philadelphia and invade New Jersey.

Going south is more difficult.There aren't that many great options when you're heading to Richmond or beyond at peak travel times.

The obvious route is to take the Capital Beltway to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and follow I-95 south. But I-95 in Northern Virginia frequently makes the New Jersey Turnpike look like a quiet country road. The stretch between the Capital Beltway and Fredericksburg, Va., often notches the highest traffic jam ratings south of metropolitan New York on the useful Web site.

There is an alternative that avoids the core of the Washington area and brings the motorist back to I-95 on the far side of the most congested stretch. It's U.S. 301 through Southern Maryland - a route I tried out on the day before Thanksgiving to test whether it offers a viable alternative for the holiday traveler.

U.S. 301 is a road familiar to earlier generations of American travelers. From the opening of a bridge over the Potomac River in 1940 until the completion of Interstate 95 between Washington and Richmond in the mid-1960s, 301 was the best way to get from the Northeast to Florida and other southern destinations. (It was also known as Sin Strip, because it led through a part of Maryland known as Little Vegas for its legal gambling and accompanying vice.)

So does this route offer anything for today's traveler? I wasn't sure - not just because the suburban sprawl but because of worries that the two-lane Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge would be a significant bottleneck.

When I set out Wednesday, it was 2:27 p.m. at St. Paul and Monument streets, and my Garmin GPS system was predicting arrival at Dahlgren, Va., just across the Potomac from Maryland, at 3:56 p.m.

Now GPS is a wonderful invention, but the poor devices are utterly clueless about traffic. In a way that makes them useful because you can get a measure of how much time you're losing to congestion.

Anyway, the GPS system set a course for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the Beltway to Interstate 97. So far, so good. But where Route 3 (Crain Highway) splits off, it made a questionable call - directing me to leave I-97 to take advantage of the straight shot to 301. Dennis Starkey of Highlandtown later told me that I should have stayed on 97 to U.S. 50. He said you can more than make up the extra seven miles by avoiding the constant succession of lights on 3 through Crofton. He's right.

Nevertheless, it was only a little after 3 p.m. when Crain Highway turned into 301 at Bowie. From there, traffic moved briskly even though volume was heavy. Then came Upper Marlboro, and traffic on 301 was creeping along. The GPS system was rapidly revising its rosy scenarios of my arrival time. At Brandywine Road, it was telling me to expect to cover the remaining 33 miles by 4:32 p.m. I was skeptical.

It was then that I encountered what may be one of the worst merges in Maryland - where 301 narrows down to one lane to merge into Branch Avenue, the main commuter route between Washington and Southern Maryland. For a stretch of several miles, the two jam-packed highways shared the same roadbed, slowing traffic to a crawl.

Finally, Branch Avenue branched off, and 301 plunged into the pit that is called Waldorf.

If you've never been to this corner of Maryland, try to imagine every chain store, restaurant, motel or other business in the United States - from Aamco to Zales - crammed into the stretch of a few miles. Traffic inches through this stretch, there's a tiny break, and then comes the mini-Waldorf of La Plata with many of the same chains.

Then, all of a sudden, the ordeal was over and my car whooshed through open country for the final approach to the toll bridge. Surprise of surprises, the backup was only four-tenths of a mile when I arrived at the toll plaza about 5:03. After about a three-minute wait to get to the EZ-Pass reader, I was on the bridge and in Virginia by 5:12.

The Nice Bridge was nice.

From there, there's nothing but open highway through lightly populated areas all the way to I-95 south of Fredericksburg on U.S. 301 and Virginia Route 207. I didn't make that trip, but according to Starkey, it's clear sailing between the Potomac and Richmond - about an hour and a quarter away.

Adjusted for pit stop time, the trip from Baltimore's Mount Vernon to Dahlgren took 2 hours and 33 minutes, about one hour of it attributable to congestion. Figure three hours and 50 minutes to go all the way to Richmond.

So does this make 301 a viable I-95 bypass? Hard to say. My spies who were monitoring told me the Jam Factor on the roads I was avoiding - the Capital Beltway from the Wilson Bridge to the Springfield Interchange and I-95 from there to Fredericksburg - were close to 8 on a 10-point scale during the time I was on 301.

Let's hear from some readers who made the journey south on I-95 last Wednesday afternoon and evening. How bad was the traffic? How long did it take you to get to Richmond? Looking for another route?