The wizards working on the transportation systems of the next century have talked about building an elevated train that would carry passengers between Washington and Baltimore at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. Wouldn't it be great if they built a leg that stretched from Baltimore to Ocean City? Imagine hopping aboard a train and being at the beach in about 30 minutes.
Alas, it's only a dream for now. Twentieth century beach lovers are left to more mundane means to get to Ocean City. For most, that means loading the car far past its capacity, testing the limits of endurance, bladders and familial love, and thinking up new ways to avoid highway hypnosis on the Ocean Gateway, U.S. 50.
In one sense, you're on your own this year as you hit the road to O.C. The state's budget crunch has meant the demise of the 4-year-old "Reach the Beach" promotion. But though the hype is gone, the best thing about the program -- the toll-free traffic alert hot line -- lives on. Call (800) 541-9595 to hear a recorded message about potential traffic trouble spots between the Baltimore metropolitan area and the beach.
If you are driving to the beach this summer, keep in mind that the success of your trip will depend greatly on decisions you make before you get behind the wheel. One thing you can and should decide to do, highway officials advise, is have your car checked out and tuned up for the trip -- unless you want to be the person other drivers curse as you sit broken down at the head of a long line of unmoving vehicles.
Another, and perhaps even more critical part of your trip planning, is the decision about when to depart.
"The best thing is to travel during off-peak hours," says Diane Levero of the Maryland State Highway Administration. She advises travelers heading to Ocean City from Baltimore to leave between 8 p.m. and midnight Thursdays, between 8 a.m. and noon on Fridays or between 3 p.m. and midnight on Saturdays.
"The best advice I could give would be to leave during off-peak travel hours," agrees Charlie Weirauch, assistant operations director of the Baltimore-based traffic reporting service Metro Traffic Control.
"Most of our delays occur when beach-bound traffic meets Friday's rush hour traffic," he says. "Try to take off a half-day on Friday and leave by lunch time. If you're going to leave Friday and can't leave early, at least wait until after rush hour. By that time, a lot of the traffic has filtered past the Bay Bridge."
When returning to Baltimore, Mr. Weirauch suggests timing your trip so you won't hit the Baltimore-Annapolis area between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays, when traffic heading home reaches its zenith.
Though Memorial Day weekend's extraordinarily good weather and record crowds meant major traffic jams on the roads that empty the beach onto the Baltimore-Washington beltways, things actually could have been worse. Improvements along U.S. 50 have helped.
Last year's big change was a switch to a one-way-only toll for the Bay Bridge. Motorists pay their $2.50 on the eastbound trip and breeze right off the bridge on the way home without having to stop. There are also more toll booths, minimizing the backup for those waiting to pay.
This year's grand addition to the Ocean City commute is the higher, wider Kent Narrows bridge, which opened last fall.
Motorists (and their cars) used to sit fuming while the old Kent Narrows drawbridge rose to accommodate boat traffic. But the new 3,000-foot-long, six-lane bridge is tall enough for sailors to breeze right under it. The state also removed two traffic lights from U.S. 50 east of the new bridge, making for even fewer traffic delays.
Though everything east of the Bay Bridge is smooth sailing all the way to Ocean City, construction continues on U.S. 50 around Annapolis. State engineers say some of the roadwork should be completed by late July, but other sections will be a mess into the fall.
Those too impatient to put up with the delays can skip the U.S. 50 trap altogether and explore the shore via Delaware.
Long favored by beachgoers who live north of Baltimore and by folks whose fear of heights just won't allow them to enjoy driving over the Bay Bridge, the Delaware route also is the main corridor for Ocean City visitors from New York, Pennsylvania and, of course, Delaware.
Heading to Ocean City from I-95 or U.S. 40, take Route 13 south through Delaware to Route 1. Route 1 hugs the coast until it becomes Route 528, which in Ocean City is better known as the Coastal Highway.
Metro Traffic Control provides beach traffic updates on radio stations in the Baltimore area and along the route to the seashore. Tune in Fridays between noon and 9 p.m., Saturdays from 7 a.m. to midday and Sundays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Baltimore stations currently carrying the beach reports include: WCAO-AM (600 kHz), WCBM-AM (680 kHz), WGRX-FM (100.7 MHz), WHFS-FM (99.1 MHz), WLIF-FM (101.9 MHz), WWIN-AM (1400 kHz), and WYST-FM (92.3 MHz) and WYST-AM (1010 kHz).
As you travel along the shore, tune to traffic forecasts on Easton's WCEI-FM (96.7 MHz) and WCEI-AM (1460 kHz), Cambridge's WCEM-AM (1240 kHz) and WCEM-FM ((106.3 MHz), Chestertown's WCTR-AM (1530 kHz) and, nearer Ocean City, on WOCQ-FM (103.9 MHz), WQHQ-FM (104.7 MHz) or WRKE-FM (101.7 MHz).
Those heading to Ocean City from Virginia and other points south have an advantage over Northerners. They can plan their travel to the beach around a landmark that can be a vacation highlight in itself: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
Stretching across the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Chesapeake, this 17.6-mile span provides some of the most spectacular scenery of any highway in the country. The complex is made up of 12 miles of roadway set low to the ocean for a thrilling view, 2-mile-long tunnels, almost 2 miles of causeway and four man-made islands.
Those traversing the bridge-tunnel can stop at the 625-foot fishing pier for an afternoon of free fishing or dine in the Sea Gull Pier Restaurant (specialty: seafood, of course). There's even a gift shop where visitors can pick up a souvenir of the drive. Once across the bridge, continue north on Route 13 to Route 113, which meets U.S. 50 just a few miles west of Ocean City.
You can always leave the driving to Greyhound ( 744-9311). Buses depart daily from the Baltimore station at 210 W. Fayette St. and cost $22 one way or $41.80 round trip. The O.C. bus station is at Philadelphia and Second Street, so if you're not too bogged down with luggage you can hop aboard a city bus for just $1 a day to get to your rental unit. Look for the "bus stops here" signs up and down Coastal Highway.
Some people, though, have figured out how to zip downyocean in under an hour without facing the traffic.
"There's really only one way to get to Ocean City -- Skyway Express," says Libby Parris, executive vice president of the new beach commuter airlines. Her claim might sound biased, but if you're coming to Ocean City by air, she's right.
Though many private planes fly into the Ocean City municipal airport, manager Tilden Montant says Skyway is offering the only commercial passenger flights to O.C.
Skyway flights depart from Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the Ocean City airport every Thursday and Friday at 6 p.m., with return trips from O.C. to BWI on Sundays at 6 p.m. and Mondays at 7:15 a.m. Airfare is $55 each way, and the trip takes just 32 minutes. Call (800) 564-0634 for reservations.
Once you're in Ocean City, Jill Seawell at the Hertz counter will rent you a car for as little as $36 a day with unlimited mileage. But she'd like your request "a day in advance . . . or at least two hours," so make a reservation by calling (800) 654-3131 or 289-8355.
If you spent all your money on airfare, you can hop aboard a $2 shuttle bus for the 10-minute ride from the airport to town, then enjoy a trip on the municipal bus.
By mid-June, Skyway Express expects to offer three daily round trips between the beach and the Baltimore area. It also hopes to add a Philadelphia-to-Ocean City circuit with a quick stop in Cape May, N.J.
Ms. Parris offers reassurance to those "white-knuckle fliers" who can't imagine climbing aboard a six-passenger puddle-jumper to fly to the beach.
"You can sit there and watch the pilot, so you know what he's doing," she says. "And after a long weekend at the beach, when you're tired and you just want to go home, it sure helps to get there in 32 minutes."