Could stimulus funds help Delaware ease its toll plaza bottleneck?

The Baltimore Sun

Many Americans are pinning high hopes on the economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama stampeded through Congress last week: millions of jobs, repairs to crumbling infrastructure and a defibrillator jolt to the flat-lining economy.

But could Big Stim also help end the notorious backups at Delaware's Interstate 95 toll plaza?

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell thinks so.

The boss rooster of the Blue Hen State announced last week - in advance of the final vote on the $787 billion package - that the bill could help relieve backups at the Newark toll plaza by speeding a project to add two E-ZPass lanes in each direction.

According to a news release, the newly elected Democratic governor "has made eliminating the I-95 bottleneck at the much maligned toll plaza a priority on the list of the state's potential stimulus projects."

As one of the chief maligners of the Delaware toll trap, where unsuspecting motorists can be forced to wait an hour or more to pay that state's extortionate toll, I welcome Markell's recognition of the problem.

Certainly, an improvement in Delaware's toll collection would marginally improve that state's relations with residents of other states in the region. It might even be enough to persuade the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to drop their super-secret plans to invade and partition their pesky little neighbor.

Joe Rogalsky, communications director for the Delaware governor, said the toll plaza expansion is considered a "shovel-ready" project that has been on hold because of revenue shortfalls. If the funds start flowing, he said, construction could start this year, and the new lanes could open in 2011.

"It'll get things moving," Rogalsky said. "We can't guarantee that it will eliminate traffic jams there, but it will make a big difference."

What Markell's announcement does not address is the other gripe motorists have with the Delaware Turnpike: its exorbitant toll levels. At $4 each way for a passenger car, it is one of the worst values of any toll facility in the United States. Savvy travelers will continue to find routes to bypass the toll plaza - knowing that the turnpike saves them only five to 12 minutes under ideal circumstances.

Rogalsky said toll relief isn't in the cards.

"Unfortunately, looking at lowering tolls is not something we can do right now," he said. The spokesman said there are no plans to raise tolls - for now.

Optimists can hope for the best, but experience suggests that when the new lanes open, they will provide Delaware with the public relations cover to jack the toll up to $5. Proud residents of the Free State are encouraged to find free routes through Delaware as long as the turnpike remains a rip-off.

Cooler, cleaner buses

Hopping on a bus, Gus, is becoming a much more pleasant way to leave your lover - or to travel for any purpose - than it was back when Paul Simon wrote "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover."

The Maryland Transit Administration took advantage of the Motor Trend International Auto Show at the Baltimore Convention Center this past weekend to show off just how advanced some of the newer generation of public transit buses have become.

On display was an example of the 60-foot hybrid diesel-electric buses that will start hitting the streets about March 1. The MTA has had 10 40-foot hybrids on the streets since 2006, but the 30 buses debuting March through July are its first elongated buses that use the cutting-edge fuel technology.

Words like cool and spiffy and comfortable are generally not associated with the city buses that travel the streets of Baltimore, but these hybrids are all of the above.

At the show Friday, MTA chief Paul J. Wiedefeld was beaming like a 10-year-old with a new Christmas bike as he showed off the bells and whistles of the new vehicles. He pointed to the windows with 60 percent less tint than on previous models - making it easier to see in and out.

"When I was in Disney World's, same tint," he gushed. "Disney's buses are the same color scheme as ours."

And, indeed, the bus seats are attractively upholstered, with bursts of bright color against a black background. Wiedefeld described the pattern as "quasar." I thought they resembled lit-up ornaments on a Christmas tree at night.

MTA officials said the seats are bigger and less jammed together than on previous buses, making them more comfortable for wide and tall people.

And for added security, there are 10 video cameras on the big hybrids - up from six on the MTA's current 60-foot diesels.

The new hybrids will be pressed into service on two of the MTA's busiest routes, the No. 8 and the No. 13. Dennis Harvin, an MTA operator on the No. 8 line from Lutherville to downtown via York Road and Greenmount Avenue, said he's looking forward to delivery of the new vehicles.

"I really can't wait to drive it. March 1 can't come fast enough. I'm sure the passengers are going to love it, too," he said.

For me, the challenge this spring is to come up with an excuse to work out of Towson for a day. This might sound strange, but I'm looking forward to riding the bus.

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