Delaware looms as holiday speed bump

Taking to the roads this week for Thanksgiving is shaping up to be a grueling experience, especially for motorists headed north on Interstate 95.

While the weather is expected to be pleasant and sunny, the forecast from Delaware is decidedly bleak, with that state's transportation officials suggesting travelers avoid going through the Newark Toll Plaza for much of the holiday weekend.

Robert King, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Transportation, said the northbound toll plaza will be down to six lanes instead of the normal nine because of a reconstruction project that is intended to make traffic flow through the notorious bottleneck better — starting in the summer of 2011. But next year's gain comes at the expense of this year's pain.

"It's not something we're looking forward to either," said King, whose department has taken the unusual step of warning paying customers to stay away starting early Tuesday.

Maryland transportation officials say it's possible the resulting backups Tuesday and Wednesday could stretch as far south as Harford County, about 20 miles from the toll plaza.

The Delaware difficulty comes as more Marylanders are expected to take to the roads this Thanksgiving holiday than in either of the previous two recession-racked years. Ragina Averella, chief Maryland spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the expected 12 percent rebound over 2009's total reflects a modestly improving economy, though the number of travelers is still expected to be 14 percent below 2007 levels.

For those who take to the roads, snow and ice are unlikely to be an issue anywhere within 300 miles of Baltimore this weekend — except perhaps in the mountains of Western Maryland on Friday. The National Weather Service forecast for Wednesday, traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, calls for sunny skies and moderate temperatures from Massachusetts to Ohio to the Carolinas.

Conditions for Saturday and Sunday return trips are looking good too, with little precipitation in the long-range predictions.

If the forecasts prove true, it would be especially good news for travelers to the Eastern Shore, who would have three eastbound lanes of the Bay Bridge available to them during peak travel hours Wednesday. The Maryland Transportation Authority typically opens three at times of high demand — but not when the weather turns bad.

The biggest problem for Thanksgiving travel will likely be the number of people traveling. AAA is projecting that 39.7 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home by car between Wednesday and Sunday, a 12 percent increase over last year.

Nowhere is the traffic likely to be worse than at the Delaware Turnpike toll plaza, just over the Maryland state line. The Delaware Department of Transportation has done everything but erect billboards warning people to avoid the turnpike.

"The predicted impacts are expected to be greater than in recent years and could stretch for miles and take hours to clear," the department said in a news release urging drivers to find alternate routes or to travel during off-peak hours.

King, the Delaware department spokesman, said the reconstruction project at the antiquated 1963 toll plaza is so extensive that some of the northbound lanes must remain closed through the holiday.

"It's not the kind of thing where we can remove the barriers for the weekend," he said.

Southbound travelers returning to Maryland Saturday and Sunday will have it somewhat easier. King said all lanes of the southbound toll plaza are open, meaning the delays are likely to be no worse than is typical on a busy holiday weekend. That can still mean extensive delays.

Motorists who stay on I-95 despite all the warnings and get caught in a backup will have to pay for the privilege. Delaware has no plans to waive the $4 toll.

According to King, the state's agreement with bondholders does not permit tolls to be waived except in case of an emergency. And so far, he said, there's been no determination that a traffic jam qualifies as an emergency. Another consideration, he said, is that waiving tolls could create even more confusion.

Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said the northbound backups at the Delaware toll plaza have extended 7 to 10 miles into Maryland on some recent non-holiday weekends. She said this weekend could be even worse — possibly extending all the way back to Harford County.

Normally, a motorist could avoid that by shifting over to parallel U.S. 40 while still in Harford. But the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which carries U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River, has been reduced to one lane in each direction as a result of a rehabilitation project and is not recommended as an alternate route, Melhem said.

He said the authority will deploy variable message signs to tell drivers how long the bridge backups are before they get caught up in the congestion. If the backups are less than 10 miles, a motorist will still be able to exit I-95 at Route 272 at North East. If it extends any farther, drivers could get off the interstate just north of the Susquehanna at Perryville.

Buck said state highway officials have already sent crews to U.S. 40, U.S. 1 and Route 7 in Northeastern Maryland to adjust the timing of the traffic signals to handle the expected surge in traffic. He said the SHA is also using variable message signs in the Washington area to encourage drivers to use an alternate route to the Northeast via the Bay Bridge and U.S. 301 on the Eastern Shore.

For some motorists, avoiding the Delaware tolls is a way of life. Some routinely get off at Elkton at Route 279 and take a route north of I-95 through Delaware. That could be a dubious strategy this weekend because if the backups are as bad as predicted, it could take a long wait to reach that exit.

Others give the toll plaza an even wider berth and avoid Delaware entirely, taking routes through Pennsylvania to the Northeast. Travelers to the Philadelphia area could avoid the Delaware mess by taking U.S. 1. Some heading for destinations farther up the Eastern Seaboard choose to travel up Interstate 83 through Pennsylvania, a strategy that can also avoid the heavy tolls on the I-95 corridor.

Any money saved on tolls could be applied to the cost of gasoline, which has risen in recent weeks to a Maryland average of $2.87 a gallon for regular gas. That may be high compared with a month ago, but it's less than a traveler is likely to encounter in New York or parts of Pennsylvania, where drivers are paying more than $3 a gallon.

In addition to the Delaware Turnpike, AAA has identified several other highways in the region where it expects serious congestion. In Maryland, they include Interstate 270 and the stretch of the Capital Beltway between I-95 and the American Legion Bridge.

In Virginia, some of the worst traffic is expected on the roads leading out of Washington, including Interstates 395 and 66. To avoid the backups that typically slow traffic between Washington and Richmond, Averella said, AAA is recommending an alternate route along U.S. 301 through Southern Maryland.

Many travelers have chosen to put thoughts of tolls, gas prices and congestion behind them and are taking a train to their Thanksgiving destinations. Steve Kulm, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the railroad is expecting too carry 127,000 passengers on Wednesday alone — 2,000 more than last year.

Amtrak has added capacity along the Northeast Corridor and on other highly traveled routes. Kulm said. But the rail options are narrowing as the holiday gets close. Tickets for some destinations, such as Lynchburg, Va., are sold out for Wednesday — as are many of the afternoon trains in the Northeast Corridor.

Kulm said that while there were still seats available on many trains as of late Monday, passengers should act to reserve seats for holiday travel as early as possible Tuesday.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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