How to bypass the Waldorf 'pit'

The Baltimore Sun

So now that we've made it through one major holiday, with all of its attendant traffic woes, we've got another two staring us in the face.

My first advice about holiday travel is: Don't. My backup advice is: Don't try to drive south on Interstate 95. With the traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia, you'll be lucky to reach Richmond in less time than it took General Grant's army.

Last week, this column explored the only even theoretically viable route: U.S. 301 through Southern Maryland. To test the premise that time could be saved using this route, I drove to Virginia via 301 on the day before Thanksgiving - traditionally the worst time of the year to get on the road.

The results were far from definitive. The roughly 2 hour, 33 minute journey to Dahlgren, Va., on the other side of the Potomac River was hardly a cakewalk. Congestion stalled the trip in Upper Marlboro, Brandywine, Waldorf and Glen Burnie before it ended with a relatively smooth southbound passage over the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge.

My impression was that if I-95 traffic was at its worst at the time I was traveling, the 301 route probably offered an edge. Plus, it had the advantage of providing a wealth of choices of places to pull off for a bathroom break. On I-95, the backups can lead to considerable discomfort with no easy escape.

Several readers weighed in with their observations, suggestions, warnings and tips - many of which could provide actionable intelligence for the strategic traveler.

Bill Snitcher of Linthicum wrote in to chide me for my less-than-glowing description of two Charles County retail strips as "the pit that is Waldorf" and the "mini-Waldorf" that is La Plata.

"I agree with you about all the chains, but [U.S.] 301 in Waldorf is far from a 'pit.' If it is a 'pit,' Reisterstown Road, Belair Road, and Harford Road are 'pits' too. Yes, the common denominators are fast-food joints, car dealerships, and strip shopping centers. But doesn't that sound just like Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie? Would that also qualify for 'pit'?"

Bill, I could offer an insincere apology to Waldorf, but of all the retail strips in Maryland, U.S. 301 in that community has the fewest redeeming features of any I can think of. Yes, Ritchie Highway goes on forever, but since the opening of Interstate 97, it's more a local nuisance than a statewide blight. Waldorf, Maryland's poster child for explosive suburban sprawl, still bestrides a main regional through-route. (La Plata's part of 301 is almost as vexing, but Snitcher correctly notes that the historic county seat has considerable charm and an inspiring story of civic renewal after a 2002 tornado.)

But apart from gallantly rising to the defense of Charles County, Snitcher also offered what might be a useful tip for the southbound traveler: While what is officially called the "Waldorf Bypass" is still on the drawing board, the county opened a route this year that functions as an interim bypass. You won't find it on most maps because it's brand-new, but Charles County officials estimate it can pare 10 minutes or more off the Waldorf-La Plata trip.

Here are Snitcher's directions: "From the north side of town just stay on Route 5 South (Mattawoman-Beantown Road). When Route 5 makes a sharp left toward St. Mary's County, just stay straight on St. Charles Parkway. Follow that till the end and you'll merge back onto U.S. 301 just north of La Plata. You will bypass the entire Waldorf commercial district. Most of it is wide-open highway."

In fact, the extension of St. Charles Parkway - the name of which changes to Rosewick Road before it meets up with 301 - opened Aug. 18. It's certainly worth a try. But keep in mind this is more a parkway than a highway. Watch your speed.

That advice applies just as strongly on the Virginia portion of U.S. 301. Wally Campbell of Severna Park and Fred Matos of Annapolis reported that police enforce speed limits zealously around Fort A.P. Hill. Matos recounted that he got caught in what he considers a "speed trap" about 20 miles south of the bridge outside Port Royal. Virginia, generally, is a state that takes speeding seriously, so be warned.

John Orzechowski of Centreville is a believer in the Southern Maryland route, but when he heads for destinations south of Richmond, he prefers to stay on 301 all the way until it runs into the Richmond Beltway (Interstate 295) and to stay on that road until it rejoins I-95 south of the city. Makes sense to me.

Orzechowski was also one of two readers - along with Cole Bacon of Towson - who reported that the antiquated, two-lane Nice Bridge can turn naughty in the northbound direction, especially on the Sunday of a holiday weekend. Cole and his girlfriend encountered a two-hour delay there last July 4 weekend. Southbound, they haven't had problems.

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